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‘Hard stuff to talk about…:’ Disciplinary actions for minority students still deemed too high

By Staff | Aug 15, 2019

Although the Lee County School District is making strides in the right direction in terms of referrals and suspensions, more work needs to be done to keep students – especially minority students – in the classroom learning, officials agree.

Black males continue to receive the greatest number of referrals and that remains a specific area of concern for district officials and the Lee County Florida Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which flagged the issue last year.

District 5 School Board Member and Chair Gwynetta Gittens said there has been some improvement, but agrees there needs to be much more, something that will not happen overnight.

“People don’t change with the seagull approach, swooping in and doing the training and swooping back out,” she said. “It does not denote change. This is hard stuff to talk about. We have to have those hard discussions. Why is this group of students the highest on the discipline list and the lowest on the academic list? How do we solve that? When I clear out of my office (my hope is) that we will at least have dented this question.”

Gittens said a discipline data report is done every year to keep track of the different offenses and number of referrals across the district.

“The goal is to reduce the number of referrals. A referral usually means if a student has done something, they are removed from a class for one period, one day or sent home. Every minute that child is out of the classroom, they are not learning,” Gittens said. “The goal is to keep students in the classroom.”

The NAACP, about a year ago, brought attention to the board that the majority of the referrals given in the district were for minorities, specifically African American males. Gittens said after looking at the data again this year, although numbers have decreased, the majority still falls into that category.

Lee County NAACP Branch President James Muwakkil said what they expected from the report is exactly what they got.

“We did not expect great big strides of improvement, we would welcome that, but that wasn’t the reality,” he said. “The reality was, let’s get the school board, the school district on it, acting on it, as opposed to talking about it.”

The NAACP was concerned about disciplinary practices being implemented, specifically in-school and out-of-school suspension, Muwakkil said.

The report stated that the total out-of-school suspensions for kindergarten through 12th grade black students was 16.97 percent during the 2018-2019 school year, 4.90 percent for Hispanic students and 5.18 percent for white students. These numbers were a decrease from the 2013-2014 school year of 32.41 percent of black students, 8.44 percent of Hispanic students and 7.15 percent of white students.

The top three kindergarten through fifth grade out-of-school suspension numbers categorized by infraction were due to disruptive behavior (507 for 2018-2019 school year), peer conflict (377 for 2018-2019 school year) and safety violation (281 for 2018-2019 school year).

The top three sixth through eighth grade students out-of-school suspension numbers categorized by infraction were insubordination/disrespect (383 for 2018-2019 school year), disruptive behavior (378 for 2018-2019 school year) and fighting (208 for 2018-2019 school year).

The top three infractions for ninth through 12th grade out-of-school suspension numbers categorized for infraction was insubordination/disrespect (380 for 2018-2019 school year), fighting (235 for 2018-2019 school year) and drug use/possession (191 for 2018-2019 school year).

“We thought the Office of Diversity and Inclusion would be an incubator to try new things, to grow new things,” Muwakkil said. “New alternatives, i.e., counseling, parenting, therapy, work study to where a kid isn’t suspended, so to speak.”

Muwakkil said it is important to find ways to keep the student in the classroom, and not suspended, sitting at home without parental supervision because that leads to finding more mischief.

“We’ve seen more alternatives to suspension. We have seen where the school district is becoming much more tolerant,” he said.

Muwakkil said although they have seen improvements from January through now on suspension of black males, they have a long way to go.

“This won’t get done without addressing the color line. The referrals that we see come out of the classrooms on black students is more of an issue of the color line,” he said.

Muwakkil said the perceived notion before the teacher even meets the black male comes from an imaginary thought pattern that comes from a culture of different skin colors.

“Teachers and principals and administrators are going to have to look at themselves and look at what they believe about others and then fact check. Fact check that because most of that is a matter of the color line,” he said. “That is a racial issue and a matter of the color line, but it should be addressed. That is what is important and so important to talk about. It can be addressed when it is brought to people’s attention.”

According to the report the number of kindergarten through 12th grade black students given a referral for insubordination in the 2018-2019 school year was 15.47 percent compared to 15.41 percent during the 2017-2018 school year. The number of referrals during the 2013-2014 school year was 20.27 percent.

The number of kindergarten through 12th grade Hispanic students given a referral for insubordination was 6.21 percent during the 2018-2019 school year, compared to 6.03 percent the year before. During the 2013-2014 school year there were 7.65 percent who received an insubordination referral.

During the 2018-2019 school year 5.53 percent of white students kindergarten through 12th grade were given a referral for insubordination compared to 5.67 the year before. During the 2013-2014 school year 7.37 of white students kindergarten through 12th grade were given a referral for insubordination .

Gittens said she wants to look at the data within the high discipline area and see where they stand in their academic proficiency level – 1, 2 and 3.

The levels on the state Florida Standards Assessments test range from 1 to 5: inadequate, below satisfactory, satisfactory, proficient and mastery. A Level 1 score means the student is “highly likely to need substantial support for the next grade/course.” Level 3, satisfactory, is considered a passing score.

“My thought is these students’ discipline issues are the same students that are not getting it. As a previous teacher, I know that the peer pressure creates a scenario. A student going through the system, being passed forward and passed forward, they get to the point where they don’t know what they are doing,” she said.

For example, Gittens said, a student is sitting in class, which is doing a round robin reading where every student is reading a portion of text.

“If John can’t read, he is not going to want to read out loud in front of his peers and let them know he doesn’t understand half the words on the page. When it gets closer to him, he creates a distraction to do something to get him out of the room because it is much worse, in his mind, to be outed that he cannot read,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

In another scenario, the class is going over homework from the night before and a student in the class did not do the homework, so he/she creates a disturbance.

“A couple things have to happen. We have to train our teachers to first of all understand that,” Gittens said, adding it’s about “relationship, relevance and rigor.”

The top high schools given referrals for insubordination by ethnicity during 2018-2019 were Dunbar High School, with 193 black students, and 186 black students at Lehigh Senior. The top two high schools during the 2018-2019 were East Lee County High School, with 149 Hispanic students, and 165 Hispanic students at Lehigh Senior School.

“The A schools have the least amount of lower level and disadvantaged (students) with 30 to 40 percent. There are six or seven schools in the East Zone that are 100 percent of disadvantaged students. When you talk about how do we fix this, we have to look at how we are training our teachers. How you are training the first-year teacher that is trying to stay above water and you also have to have a relationship with students,” Gittens said.

She compared District 5, the east zone, to a toothache. Gittens said every fiber of your body, down to your toes, is concentrating on the pain.

“We are the pain. Until we fix it we are not whole. Until we are equal, we are not whole. We have to equalize the Level 1s and 2s and equalize the disadvantage. People talk about the Dunbar area. For all practical purposes, we are Dunbar II. They have moved people from Fort Myers out to the East Zone. So now we have a plethora of these students that need all these extra services in one area,” Gittens said.