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St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) made headlines last month when it announced it would ban out-of-school suspensions in preschool through second grade.
The district's move could have a significant impact. It issued 857 out-of-school suspensions to kindergarten through third grade students in the 2014-15 school year. That was the most out-of-school suspensions any district gave to black K-3 students last school year.
Yet, SLPS did so at a lower rate than other large school systems in Missouri, according to a St. Louis Public Radio analysis of state school discipline data.
SLPS issued one out-of-school suspension for every nine black K-3 students last school year year. The state average was one out-of-school suspension issued for every seven black students in the early grades.
By contrast, Kansas City Public Schools issued one out-of-school suspension for every four black kindergarten through third grade students. That’s compared to one for every 21 white students in its district.
The numbers were similar in the Ritenour School District, one of only a handful of racially diverse school systems in the St. Louis area.
“Suspending our youngest students is troubling to all of us – our teachers, counselors, administrators and, most of all, the children and their families,” a spokesperson for Ritenour said in a written statement. “We continue to provide additional supports and interventions to students, their families and our teachers that better address behaviors that lead to suspensions Although we have increased our efforts and resources in this area, it is clear we need to continue to do more to help all of our students be successful.”
Some charters schools also issued suspensions to black children at an especially high rate. KIPP St. Louis, which operates two charter elementary schools in St. Louis, issued 108 out-of-school suspensions to 197 black kindergarten through third grade students last school year — that's a rate of one suspension for every two black students.
“KIPP St. Louis is committed to creating a safe, structured school environment that supports and nourishes the whole child,” Kelly Garrett, executive director KIPP St. Louis, said in a written statement. “Our social workers are increasingly collaborating with teachers to proactively address behavior issues when possible, with the goal of keeping students in class and learning as much as possible.”
Confluence Academies, which operates three charter elementary schools in St. Louis, issued 362 out-of-school suspensions to its 998 black kindergarten through third grade students last year, a rate of about one out-of-school suspension for every three black students.
“The numbers are staggering, and not just with Confluence but across America,” said Jim Walters, director of professional learning and teacher support for Confluence Charter Schools. “We know that number has to be reduced.”
As with other St. Louis area districts, Walters said Confluence is moving toward a trauma-informed school model designed to recognize the role outside stresses can have on student behavior.
“We are trying to change that lens from, 'What’s wrong with you?' to 'What happened with you?'” Walters said.
Confluence has taken other steps, Walters said, including adding yoga to classrooms and creating “sensory centers” to help students who act out in class calm down and talk with counselors.
“We’re hopeful that number will be reduced by instituting these mindful programs and also putting social-emotional learning into the curriculum,” Walters said.
St. Louis Public Radio contacted 13 school districts and charter school operators in the St. Louis region that either gave more than 100 out-of-school suspensions in the 2014-15 academic year or had a suspension rate above the state average. Six of those districts and charter school operators responded with either written statements or interviews.
Last fall, Missouri Education Commissioner, Margie Vandeven, said out-of-school suspensions in the early grades should only be given in the most extreme situations, such as a child bringing a gun or knife to school.
Racial disparities in early grade suspensions are a problem, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said in a recent interview.
“Any time you’re having out-of-schools suspensions for kids of that age, you are putting in play potential for a whole series of other problems,” Nixon said during an appearance on St. Louis On The Air.
Currently, discipline policies are set by individual school districts in Missouri.
When asked if additional state policies regarding early-grade suspensions are needed, Nixon did not directly say yes or no. He said it's important to look at these issues through a post-Ferguson lens and said there are more conversations happening.