OPINION | Nehemiah D. Frank, Editor in Chief
Tulsa, Okla.—The Director of Tulsa Public Schools Student and Family Support Services, Ebony Johnson, told Tulsa World the district set a goal to reduce suspensions by 5-percent in the 2016-2017 school year, but TPS easily surpassed that number purporting that “Tulsa Public Schools reports 26 percent fewer out-of-school suspensions in 2016-2017.” That statement, however, is a bit ambiguous when defining suspension.
To understand TPS’ discipline policies we visited their website and clicked on their new Student and Family Guide to Success Destination Excellent (Behavior Response Plan) package. We found on page 13 three different types of suspensions that allow TPS’ to remove a student they deem disruptive from the classroom:
- removal from the classroom by a teacher (in-school suspension),
- suspension up to 10 days (out-of-school suspension),
- suspension of 11 or more days (which should be unconstitutional when you consider African-American students disproportionately receive suspensions at higher rates than their white counterparts).
The amount of classroom time is crucial to some life chances a student receives after primary and secondary school and can be a significant variable in the direction of college or prison.
Some school districts across Oklahoma have switched from the traditional 5-day school week to a less-competitive 4-day to save money. Unfortunately, the financial savings come at the expense of educating our children and most of these reductions in class time have occurred in our rural communities.
Moreover, 43-percent of African-American students in the state live in poverty in communities where food deserts are vast, and dollar-discount stores permeate the landscape with unhealthy snacks and no fruits or vegetables. The pandemic of food deserts began in the heyday of the 1960s – called urban renewal or redevelopment (i.e. which James Baldwin so famously coined Negro Removal) – desegregation.
The article didn’t make clear if the overall suspension of African-American students had been reduced.
“We need strong, counseling-based behavior intervention, and that’s hard to fund in these lean times,” Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Patti Ferguson-Palmer told Tulsa World. “We need more support for teachers and administrators. Kids and families need more support for the issues underlying the behavior which are causing problems. Until we deal with the underlying issues and have the resources to truly intervene and support, just having ‘fewer suspensions’ isn’t solving the problem.”
Ferguson-Palmer went on to tell Tulsa World “kids with disruptive behaviors back to the classroom where many teachers are told the student’s behavior is the teacher’s fault for ‘not establishing a relationship.’ That’s pretty difficult when you have 30 other students who need your attention.”
But Ferguson-Palmer never mentioned the disproportionate number of African American students being suspended. She does not raise the academically explored issue of unconscious bias in the classroom that many believe has a direct impact on students of color and most specifically on African-American students who have a suspension rate three times that of white students last year.
Roughly 1 in 5 African-American students were suspended last year in the TPS system.
TPS purports 6,032 suspensions in 2016-2017 compared to 8,113 in 2015-16. However, how many in-school-suspensions occurred, and how many in-school-suspensions go unreported (i.e. sending a student out into the hallway into class has ended)? Moreover, how many in-class suspensions took place in which teachers excluded students from participating in academic activities as a form of punishment for being disruptive? How many students were sent home for the last few hours of the day but never documented?
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission has already reported that classroom management is a major issue in TPS.
TPS’ sends the majority of its emergency certified teachers as well as substitutes to schools north of Admiral, the city’s predominantly African-American and Latino side of town. Some substitutes are as young as 18-years old. Educators who don’t reside in the community have a difficult time connecting to students. Challenging and unconscious biases towards race and class linger into the classroom when teachers and subs aren’t or haven’t undergone culture-competent classes which can make classroom management difficult. Unculturally-competent teachers can be both psychologically traumatizing for students and can lead to the expansion of cognitive dissonance between for the teacher in relation to the community the teacher is serving.
The unspoken racial tension this town has been dealing with since the 1921 Tulsa Massacre is the elephant in the room when it comes to suspensions, and TPS needs to address it head-on.