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City District Suspends Fewer Young Students After Suspension Ban, But Racial Disparities Remain

Robert F. Bukaty

Three years after the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board banned suspending K-2 students for nonviolent offenses, members wanted data that would tell them if they should expand that ban through fifth grade.

An analysis of the ban made public Tuesday night showed that racial disparities in discipline persist even with the ban. But board directors Kevin Carter and Pam Harbin said that because the report couldn't explain why, the exercise had been a waste of time.

The report was compiled by a North Carolina-based education consultant, Prismatic Services, and it showed that Black students are disproportionately suspended for violent and non-violent offenses. And while suspensions drastically decreased in K-2, the report found, schools were still suspending students for nonviolent offenses even after the ban was put in place.

The total number of suspensions dropped by 35 percent between the 2015-2016 school year and the 2018-2019 year, the last full year for which the district had data. But the racial disparity has remained: Partial data from 2019-2020 shows that Black students, who made up 50 percent of the K-2 student body, accounted for just under 80 percent of its out-of-school suspensions.

When Carter asked why schools were suspending any students for nonviolent infractions, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said he had the same question.

“There is no excuse for us to be here saying we don’t know why principals aren’t following what the board is approving," Carter shot back. "I think that is a completely unacceptable answer now that we’re three years into this. If they’re still suspending kids, the principals that are doing that … something needs to happen. Them doing whatever they want is completely unacceptable.”

Hamlet said the district “needs to do better” and he will follow up with principals.

“We know some of the supports that should be in place, we know some of the supports that have been asked for," Hamlet said. "We’re going to work with our principals and our admin team to make sure we create those opportunities for them."

Board members expressed frustration with the scope of the report.

Only 18 percent of K-2 teachers responded to a survey from Prismatic Services and six principals were interviewed. Multiple board members called the data insufficient.

Those who responded said that the district should have given schools more resources and supports. Board member Terry Kennedy called the ban an unfunded mandate.

Chief data officer Ted Dwyer attributed some of the suspension data to errors in coding the suspensions.

While the contract with the consultant did not ask for recommendations, Prismatic Services recommended that PPS use "In School Suspension" rooms – or ISS. Harbin noted there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of ISS as a means of discipline because it still removes a student from learning time.

“What we’re saying is ‘OK this kid keeps having this behavior and it’s impacting the whole class,'" she said. "We didn’t give the kid what they need, we didn’t give the teacher what they need, we didn’t give the school what they need, we didn’t change the environment. Frankly to have this conversation where we’re going to create this new space, this magical space that is going to make it all better … hell no. That’s not going to work."

In the district’s response to the recommendations, it said it will “develop parameters for restorative/cool-down rooms that includes staffing, protocols, materials, etc.” But the report did not note which schools use or have such rooms. The report does not include which interventions each school uses. Board members have also asked for that data.

Board members said they also learned nothing new from a separate presentation Tuesday night, after Dwyer presented arrest and citation data that the board asked for last year.

While overall calls for service to either school police or the city's police bureau have decreased over five years, the racial disparity persists. Black students make up a little over 50 percent of enrollment, but three-fourths of calls for service only involved a Black student. Fewer than one-fifth of calls involved only a white student.

Dwyer said one of the next steps is to talk to administrators of schools with higher calls for service. Board member Devon Taliaferro said it would take more than a conversation to move the needle.

“I think we need to have a real good honest conversation about the roles that we play as adults and how we don’t protect and support our students in the ways that we may think we do,” she said. "Maybe this time we will get that we need to make some serious changes in this district."

Corrected: June 9, 2021 at 9:43 AM EDT
This story was updated to correct the name of the education consulting company.