As Kentucky’s largest school district moves forward with a new racial equity policy, fresh national data shows that JCPS’ black students continue to be disproportionately suspended and expelled.

The Jefferson County Board of Education unanimously passed a new racial equity policy for the district Tuesday night, hoping to reduce racial-based barriers and shrink the district’s achievement gap between white students and students of color. At least 10 community members and JCPS parents addressed the board about the policy, all in favor of its passage. 

The disproportion of suspensions, especially those for black students with disabilities, was one of multiple reasons interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis recommended the state take over JCPS last week

The new policy includes plans to reduce disproportionate suspensions and increase advanced program participation, a JCPS spokeswoman, Allison Martin, said. 

“I’m feeling excited,” JCPS Chief Equity Officer John Marshall said minutes after the policy passed. “I think we got a good team and great leadership that’s really going to push this forward.

“It has passed, but now we really got to put the work behind it to move it forward,” Marshall said.

At the first reading on April 24,  Marshall said, “This policy is not truly a JCPS policy — it’s a Louisville policy.”

The new policy is a “great step” to combat racial equity issues in the district, Quintez Brown, a senior at duPont Manual High School and the president of the school’s Black Student Union, said.

“Black students are aware that their peers are disciplined at a higher rate than their white peers, and many black students have become so used to it that it becomes the norm,” Brown said.

Behavior problems could come from outside factors like socioeconomic status, but “you cannot ignore the biases of teachers and lack of representation in the classroom,” Brown said.

Local Black Lives Matter lead core organizer Chanelle Helm said the policy was more of an outline than a fully formed plan. “It mentions strategies but there isn’t one strategy outlined in the policy,” Helm said.

The policy “requires each department and school to craft a plan to provide equitable access to educational opportunities for all students,” Martin said.

Marshall said this is the next step in beginning to implement the policy.

Next, they’ll design a district-level plan, he said. All schools and teams will have an equity model, Marshall said, to face the inequities they see in schools. A districtwide taskforce will look at inequity from a district perspective and help advise the plan and hold different stakeholders accountable.

Despite making up 37 percent of Jefferson County Public Schools’ student body, black students account for the majority of suspensions and expulsions, according to new data from the national Civil Rights Data Collection.

In the 2015-16 school year, for which the data was released in April, black students make up 59 percent of in-school suspensions, 63 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 67 percent of expulsions.

This means black students are also missing more instructional time, the data says. Of the 50,396 school days JCPS students missed for out-of-school suspensions in 2015-16, 34,688 were missed by black students — around 69 percent.

On the flip side, white students, the racial majority of the district, make up a disproportionate number of students in college readiness classes like calculus. While only accounting for 46 percent of the district’s total students, white students made up two-thirds of all gifted and talented students.

The disparity between white and black students grows for students with disabilities. Black students make up 43 percent of the district’s students with disabilities. However, they account for 63 percent of in-school suspensions, 71 percent of those with multiple out-of-school suspensions and 72 percent expulsions, according to the 2015-16 data. All of those numbers are three to seven percentage points higher than their able-bodied peers.

White students with disabilities do not have the same issue, seeing the same or sometimes slightly lower suspension and expulsion rates as their able-bodied peers.

Socioeconomic status also has an impact. Black students who qualify for free or reduced lunch made up 62 percent of suspensions in 2016 — the largest group, according to the 2016 JCPS equity score card.

Even one suspension can increase a student’s chance of being involved in the criminal justice system in the future, according to Chris Harmer from Louisville’s Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS).

Additionally, black students have more than three times the incidents with school resource officers than white students, with 58 percent of those incidents ending in an arrest. Only 22 percent of incidents with white students end in an arrest, according to the 2016-17 Kentucky Department of Education district report card.

What causes disproportionality

The disproportionality is caused by the city’s larger segregation issues, Helm said.

“JCPS is a district situated in a city that is systemically segregated,” Helm said. “It’s not expected to have a fair system of discipline when the school district isn’t rooted in cultural awareness for all students.”

JCPS doesn’t have the money nor the talent to help students with discipline issues to reach gifted and talented programs, she said.

Brown, the senior at duPont Manual High School, said, “I believe the main cause of this problem is that black students don’t believe our education system is meant for them. Black students, starting at kindergarten, are not seeing themselves in the curriculum or in the faculty at school.”

Black students are receiving their entire education from white teachers, Brown said, which can have consequences.

“It may not be intentional but because many white teachers are coming into the school with their own implicit biases and social conditioning, they have invalidating attitudes toward black students,” Brown said.

Early learning issues may lead to behavior problems, which may then turn into issues with law enforcement, thus creating the school-to-prison pipeline, Harmer said.

“Kids who are behind academically may act out more because they tune out when they can’t keep up,” Harmer said. “That makes early remediation of literacy issues particularly critical and is the basis of the oft-cited use of third grade reading levels to predict needed future prison beds.”

Increased cultural competency training, minority teacher recruitment and inclusive curriculum are also a part of the new policy, Martin said. 

“We need teachers and staff who understand that all our students live in the same city, but do not come from the same culture or background,” Helm said. Teachers writing a disproportionate number of referrals and schools administering the most suspensions should be held accountable, Helm said.

A districtwide summit on racial equity could also help reduce disproportionality, Helm said.

“If we are truly a district of inclusion, our curriculum has been exclusive for years,” Marshall said on April 24. When students can see themselves in the curriculum, behavior problems and classroom culture improve, he said.

Martin noted that there hasn’t been a meaningful shift in the trend since the 2009-10 school year, the earliest available data. Other large urban school districts report similar trends in suspension rates, she said.

For example, in Chicago Public Schools, white students make up 29 percent of gifted and talented despite being less than 10 percent of the overall district. Black students, who account for 39 percent of the district, make up 63 percent of in-school suspensions, 66 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 75 percent of expulsions, according to the 2015-16 data.

The new racial equity policy isn’t the first effort to change the district, Martin said. In the two years since the most recent data was recorded, JCPS has added a restorative practice program at 19 schools, worked with the KDE to create a correction plan to reduce disproportionality and changed the district’s code of conduct, Martin said.