Spokane Public Schools is failing to connect with minority students on the subject of safety and discipline, board members were reminded this past week.
They also were confronted with numbers suggesting that little has changed in recent years, particularly for African-American teenagers.
The most glaring statistic: So far this year, African-American high school students were disciplined at more than twice the rate of their peers, and almost three times as often as white students.
Pondering those numbers, board member Brian Newberry said that “the numbers seem fairly consistent at this point, so at some point we’re going to have to figure out another direction in making a dent in this.”
The report was reviewed at Wednesday’s board meeting, two weeks after the district took a verbal blistering following a racially divisive incident at Ferris High School on Jan. 24, when a video showed that a resource officer detained an African-American student by pressing his forearm into the student’s neck.
The resource officer, Shawn Audie, is resigning effective April 30. However, the incident seemed to indicate that when it comes to students’ safety, perception is reality – and that reality differs by race.
The Ferris incident left “many students of color feeling very unsafe in the schools,” said Rosemarie Thurman of the Every Student Counts Alliance, a group of advocates, parents, and community leaders seeking to reform school discipline in Spokane.
“Many people feel that progress has slowed,” said Thurman, who questioned higher capital expenditures for locked doors, resource officers and time-out rooms as “a type of safety that doesn’t make a student feel safer.”
Thurman also urged the district to reach out by holding community meetings.
Board member Mike Wiser acknowledged that while the numbers were sobering, the district ranked in the 60th percentile nationally in students’ perception of safety.
Wiser also noted that the average student rated school safety at a solid 3.7 on a scale of 1 to 5.
That drew a response from board member Jerrall Haynes, who said that the students who feel unsafe “don’t make up the majority of our students.”
In other words, white students feel safer than their peers.
That perception was underscored at the previous board meeting on Feb. 13, when the Ferris incident dominated the agenda.
During that meeting, school board student adviser Dylan Pearson, who is white, stated that he felt safe during the lockdown on Jan. 24. Nonwhite Ferris students said otherwise.
Wednesday’s numbers were unveiled by Shawn Jordan, the district’s director of secondary programs and special services; and Gwen Harris, the director of option schools and program support.
Together they took the board through the statistics, which were similar to previous years.
The district continues to see a disproportionate number of incidents involving minority and lower-income students. African-Americans comprise 3.1 percent of the district’s roughly 30,000 students yet figure in 6.7 percent of disciplinary actions.
Likewise, 56 percent of students receive free and reduced-price meals, yet are involved in 85 percent of disciplinary incidents. Through 106 school days, the district reported 1,175 “exclusionary consequences” at the elementary schools, 462 at the middle school level and 674 by high schoolers. The numbers are consistent with previous year, though middle school incidents are down from 596 at the same time last year, while high school numbers are up from 548 last year.
One encouraging sign is that fewer students are repeating violations as they get older. For example, among ninth graders, 144 students were involved in 250 incidents, while 61 seniors faced 88 exclusionary consequences.
Meanwhile, the district is continuing to participate in a culturally responsive training program led by the Washington Education Association.
The training modules have been developed in partnership with the University of Washington and are presented by a trained group of teachers. About 50 percent of district schools will receive training by the end of the school year.
A key component of the program is to conduct student focus groups for staff to review.
Also, the district is in the final stage of development of a systemwide multitier system of supports that are aimed at struggling students. Such a system is intended to create a layer of support for a student from counselors, specially trained educators, administrators and parents.
The district is also developing an intervention tracking system. Training and implementation of the system began in February.
Superintendent Shelley Redinger added that the district is seeking new ideas by reaching out to “sister-type” districts with similar demographics, such as Oakland and Sacramento, California.
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