Marion County School Board tackles concerns over racial disparity in discipline

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Posted April 21, 2022 | By Caroline Brauchler

Reports highlighting an explosion of disciplinary referrals at all grade levels in Marion County schools, and the alarming racial disparity contained in the numbers, led a group of school district social workers on Tuesday to plead with the Marion County School Board for help.

“We stand before you today asking and begging for change,” said social worker Kristen Wilson. “We need culturally responsive techniques and training for all staff, especially those in discipline. We need to do better for all our children in Marion County public schools.”

Students of color received over twice the amount of office discipline referrals as white students across the elementary, middle school and high school levels, according to district student services quarterly meeting statistics. At the middle school level alone, white students received about 42,000 referrals while students of color received about 102,500, which is 141% more.

School Board Chair Rev. Eric Cummings said the challenges are not new and they extend far beyond the numbers.  

“Too many of our kids are getting caught up in the disciplinary system of our school,” he said. “Once it starts in school…it moves from the schools to the streets. I’m tired of turning on the news and seeing kids killing kids.”

He added any solution to the crisis involves more than just suspensions and expulsions.

“Part of discipline is showing what you’ve done wrong, correcting the behavior and giving them the opportunity to be successful,” said Cummings. “It’s not just punitive.”

Wilson was one of four social workers from Marion County schools who pressed the school board to bring attention to racial disparity they have perceived in the treatment and discipline of students that they feel has not yet been improved by the Strategic Plan put into place by Marion County Public Schools last November. 

The five-year plan aims to create “diverse and enriching pathways for all students to achieve intellectual and personal excellence” complete with strategies to implement by 2026s. 

School board member Allison Campbell has focused students’ suffering grades as seen on the mid-year report she requested from the district. She said she believes part of the answer lies in familial involvement.

“The best way that I believe it can be alleviated is through mentorship, and adults who care about kids,” Campbell said after the meeting. “Whether that’s parent involvement, which certainly we welcome, whether that’s churches, civic groups or anybody out there that wants to start mentoring kids.”

She urges parents and guardians of students to sign into the parent grade portal to keep a close eye on the grades of their children, and to continuously be involved in the homework and studying that happens outside the classroom. 

But one educational expert addressing the board said increasing parental involvement may not be enough to turn the tide.

“I encourage you to really come up with a plan of action and not just say that we need parents to be engaged,’’ said Barbara Brooks, president of RAMAL Educational and Social Services Inc. “Not just say ‘look at the data’ and pass it on, but what’s your plan of action?”

RAMAL is a nonprofit specializing in social services and education that aims to provide information and training to empower students to improve their lives and the community in which they live.

Brooks renewed a call to have a social worker placed in every school to assist students by finding out what the root of the continuing problems are and rolling up their sleeves to get to work to solve them. 

“We identified some areas in which I would like for you to consider in terms of having a task force,” Brooks said. “Not just another committee, but actually a working committee that we identify what the behaviors are that are causing these kids to be referred in record numbers.”

Brooks said that she did not want to see these same issues going into 2023 and 2024 and said that there needed to be a communal and systematic effort to support students.

“We can collaborate on those issues that deal with our brown and Black kids and the whole referral process in the public schools here in Marion County,” she said. “We cannot overlook this. These are our students; these are our future.”

Campbell responded that community involvement was a necessity to expand on the Strategic Plan and hopes mentorship programs will create the momentum needed to improve the discipline and grade statistics in coming years.

“I’ve asked for the third quarter data on the grades of D’s and F’s, but I’ve also asked for them to aggregate it against attendance and discipline records because I do believe that those who are not in school, those who are making these poor grades, are probably also the same students that are having poor judgment, lack of coping skills, etcetera and having the most discipline issues.”

Campbell said this data might track any correlations between failing grades, attendance, and discipline. Students facing these challenges could benefit from mentorship programs. 

“We’re having conversations with some folks with the community engagement pillar of the Strategic Plan goal five,” she said. “I can assure you whenever we start hearing from community engagement, we’ll start hearing what those metrics are, what the baseline data is on communication and parent involvement and how we’re going to be able to move that needle.”

Cummings noted students who get caught in the disciplinary system of schools often grow into the adults who get caught in the cycle of crime. The district, he said, needs to be able to notice the signs of students at risk and identify them to prevent this before it starts. 

“A lot of times people know that there are issues but they’re afraid to step out and call it what it is,” he said. “You can’t correct anything until you address the issue and state that something is broken.” 

Cummings said he supported both the idea of forming a task force as well as creating a mentorship program, but he said the school board can’t do it alone. The board, he said, needs a huge push of individual and community involvement to truly act rather than just discuss the problems. 

“I know the problem is much bigger than the data,” Cummings said. “We won’t be the save-all, but we’ve got to start trying to save some.”

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