Disproportionate discipline keeping black kids out of school more often in Dayton schools

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What can be done: Bias training, reducing suspensions, restorative justice

Editor’s note: This story is part of a package of reports exploring race- and poverty-based achievement gaps at Dayton Public Schools and how they can be bridged. Read our full report here. 


Research shows black students disproportionately face discipline over their white peers, including being removed from the classroom for periods of time in out-of-school suspensions.

The out-of-school suspension rate in DPS shows a stark disparity. The 3,695 out-of-school suspensions of black students last year compared to 476 for white students. The vast majority of suspensions — for both blacks and whites — are for non-violent actions, such as being disobedient or disruptive. More than 1,200 of those suspensions, however, were attributed to fighting and violence.

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DPS’s suspension rate stands out compared to other large urban districts. The percentage of overall suspensions that went to black students in Dayton — 84 percent — is higher than any of Ohio’s large urban schools except for Cincinnati schools, which issued far fewer out-of-school suspensions — 538 — because of programs limiting that type of discipline.

Here are the numbers: 

“Looking at the data, there’s something wrong,” said Robyn Traywick, a Dayton attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, who said much of her caseload is spent helping parents whose children were unfairly disciplined. “In my experience, the majority that come in as disciplinary issues, it turns out being the child has a disability that’s not been dealt with

How teachers handle discipline can be biased against black students, according to the participants at a Learn to Earn Dayton summit in March 2017. Yale University child development expert Walter Gilliam relayed a study where teachers were asked to rate the severity of a written description of misbehavior. Identical descriptions of actions were seen as more severe by teachers if the student was believed to be black, Gilliam said.

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Another study tracked eye movements of preschool teachers watching for misbehavior and found teachers watched black male students more intently, he said.

For students, the suspensions have a detrimental effect, said Zakiya Sankara-Jabar of Racial Justice NOW! “How do you expect young people to know how to read by third grade when you’re constantly kicking them out of school?” she said.

Sankara-Jabar said the district has been slow to adopt “restorative justice,” a disciplinary approach that focuses on mediation and repairing harm over punishing student misconduct. Research shows this helps correct behavior and reduce repeat offenses, she said.

The district is taking steps to address racial disparities in how children are disciplined. In addition to adding cultural sensitivity training, DPS increased the work of its Office for Males of Color to help coach teachers on avoiding implicit bias.

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The state is also making changes. Because of the sheer numbers of young students getting suspended, state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, sponsored a bill that would phase in an end to out-of-school suspensions for all but the most severe misbehavior — such as students harming other students — for children up through third grade. The bill passed the General Assembly this summer and was signed by Gov. John Kasich.

DPS Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli is taking that one step further. Starting this school year, the district moved to in-school suspensions for any student who doesn’t pose a threat to other kids, Lolli said.

In previous years, suspended students were sent home or to a different school building to serve out suspensions. The district now sends students on long-term suspension to the Dayton Digital Academy, where they receive classroom instruction, while students on short-term suspension stay in their school building. Aides help them with their work in a room down the hall from their normal classroom.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: The Path Forward: Dayton Schools Facebook group

“Principals are very excited about that because we don’t have to have our kids leave the building to be disciplined,” Lolli said.

David Romick, head of the Dayton teachers union, acknowledged that bias “probably does play a role” in why there is such a racial disparity in the number of suspensions, and said the union has made cultural competency training more available to teachers this year.

Romick said he supports using in-school-suspensions.

“We certainly have an interest in keeping our kids in school as much as possible,” he said.

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