Racial disparity in suspensions still plagues Lawrence school district

Lawrence Public Schools (Shutterstock photo)

A report shared earlier this month with the Lawrence school board shows that students of color continue to be disciplined with out-of-school suspensions at higher rate than their white peers.

The report presented by Terry McEwen, district director of assessment, research and accountability, found that the number of students given out-of-school suspensions decreased by more than 20 percent, from 377 in the 2015-2016 school year to 297 in the 2016-2017 school year.

But that good news was tempered by statistics showing the district is failing to make progress in addressing the higher proportional rate of out-of-school suspensions given to students of color. McEwen characterized the suspension trend data as “steady.”

Lawrence school district enrollment percentages by race

White: 67 percent

Black: 7 percent

Multiracial: 9 percent

Hispanic: 9 percent

Native American: 4 percent

Asian: 4 percent

The report tracked the total number of students suspended in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 academic years, then provided the percentage of students in different racial subgroups suspended each of those years.

According to the report, white students made up 67 percent of the student enrollment during the four-year study but never received more than 62.7 percent (2015) of the total out-of-school suspensions and accounted for just 53.2 percent of students disciplined in that manner in 2017.

Percent of Lawrence school district students receiving out-of-school suspensions by race

White — 2014, 59.5 percent; 2015, 62.4 percent; 2016, 44 percent; 2017, 53.2 percent

Black — 2014, 12.7 percent; 2015, 14.3 percent; 2016, 13.4 percent; 2017, 13.8 percent

Multiracial — 2014, 12.3 percent; 2015, 9.4 percent; 2016, 6.6 percent; 2017, 15.8 percent

Hispanic — 2014, 6.4 percent; 2015, 8.6 percent; 2016, 6.2 percent; 2017, 10.4 percent

Native American — 2014, 8.2 percent; 2015; 4.1 percent; 2016, 7.3 percent; 2017, 3.7 percent

Asian — 2014, 0.9 percent; 2015, 1.1 percent; 2016, 0.8 percent; 2017, 2.7 percent

The report also showed that every year from 2014 to 2017, the percentage of black and multiracial students receiving out-of-school suspensions was greater than the percentage of their enrollments. For example, black students, who made up 7 percent of the enrollment during the period, accounted for 12.7 percent of out-of-school suspensions in 2014, 14.3 percent in 2015, 18.3 percent in 2016 and 13.8 percent in 2017.

Dave Cunningham, district legal counsel and executive director of human resources, said the district’s policy on suspensions was basically a rewrite of state statutes. State statutes give school boards and their certified employees the right to suspend or expel students for such things as committing crimes on school property, possessing a weapon at school or at a school activity, endangering others, violating rules approved by a school board, or disobeying a teacher, school administrator or law officer.

The building-level handbooks do invite some variance in district suspension policy, Cunningham said.

“The area that gets a little gray is where it says a violation of any policy or handbook provision,” he said. “Each building has a handbook, and our secondary schools have codes of conduct they expect kids to follow. If you don’t follow those, it could create a basis for suspension or expulsion.”

District administration and the board are trying to minimize building variances. In remarks to the school board Nov. 13, interim superintendent Anna Stubblefield said data on suspensions gathered by the district now would be shared throughout the year with principals instead of at the end of the school year. That would allow building administrative teams to recognize trends and make changes, she said.

School board president Shannon Kimball said she and fellow board member Vanessa Sanburn reviewed building handbooks six years ago so they could be updated to align with district policies. It’s time for another such review, which should be done before the board approves the handbooks in July, she said.

One newly elected board member thinks it’s time for stronger action. Kelly Jones, who was elected to the Lawrence school board earlier this month, said she would bring to the board the concerns she expressed about the suspension inequity issue during her campaign.

“I think we have to look very closely to determine if we are not at a place of needing a uniform policy on how suspensions are exercised at each school,” she said. “In the case of out-of-school suspensions, practices may be potentially biased against those with mental health issues and students of color. If there’s bias, that’s a civil rights issue, and we have to look at how to reduce them.”

Suspensions are viewed negatively, but Kevin Harrell, the district’s executive director of student support and special education, said they can have positive outcomes.

“Sometimes, it’s a one-time thing — a kid does something and learns,” he said.


The district, nonetheless, has the goal of reducing the number of suspensions because it recognizes that they are often counterproductive, Harrell said.

“There’s often no supervision,” he said. “Sometimes it reinforces doing things to get out of school, so the goal is to look at the consequences that don’t require out-of-school suspensions.”

A step down to an in-school suspension is such an alternative, which could be for an hour, half day or full day depending on the building and the issue, Harrell said. Time out of the classroom does not relieve students of the responsibility to keep up with their studies, he said. In-school suspensions in the district’s secondary schools are served in a disciplinary room with a certified teacher.

“They might be on suspension, but they would actually be working on their curriculum,” he said. “They would have access to their school work as before, but they are not in the room with the other students. The goal is to always have the student engaged in the learning process and the curriculum and completing an assignment. You don’t want them completing that in-school suspension and then go back to class missing a day or so of classwork and be behind because of it.”

The district makes available opportunities for those serving out-of-school suspensions to keep up with their studies, too, Harrell said. In general, suspended middle school students may take their iPads home, and those suspended from Lawrence or Free State high schools may take their MacBooks, although that might not be the case if a student is suspended for violating the district’s technology policy.

Suspended and expelled students can also take advantage of a suspension alternative program, Harrell said. This program, for longer suspensions, can help keep students from falling too far behind.

“Our goal is to help students toward graduation,” he said. “If a student is suspended three days or more, we do have a location they can go to, get instruction and homework from their teachers and have a certified teacher instruct them. So, we’ve had students who may have been expelled or on long-term suspension, but they still graduated because they could go there and still have access to the curriculum.”