Education

School to Prison Pipeline: Tulsa Improving but disparities remain

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Photo Courtesy of EdSource


By Deon Osborne

Despite a significant reduction in total school suspension rates, black students in Tulsa Public Schools are still more than twice as likely to be suspended as white students.

School leaders and data analysts gave a State of the District presentation of the progress Tulsa Public Schools has made in multiple areas at the TPS school board meeting on Monday, September 17. One of those areas involved school discipline and the racial disparities that persist.   

Even though total 2017-2018 school suspension rates for TPS were 7.4 percent of the student population, down from 7.8 percent the previous school year, black students are more than twice as likely to be suspended out of school than their white peers. 

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While this school-to-prison-pipeline, a social phenomenon involving disproportionate school discipline rates among minorities, is even worse nationally, TPS and other public school districts in Oklahoma have a long way to go in closing the gap between white and black student suspension rates. 

This comes as Oklahoma has surpassed Louisiana to become the incarceration capitol of the world earlier this year.  Studies have shown that suspending students out of school leads to negative educational outcome and a higher likelihood of entering the criminal justice system.

As our prisons reach more than 109 percent capacity, requiring an increasing share of the state budget, reducing the disparities in school suspension rates is one way to expand the future opportunities for Oklahoma’s black students. 

Explosive classroom sizes, teacher shortages, and underfunded schools are major factors that contribute to school discipline rates, according to a Tulsa Public School teacher at Will Rogers College High School. 

“It is the root of all issues facing public education in our state and other states where education is not valued by the state government,” A.P. U.S. History Teacher Emily Harris said.

This year, amid crumbling school infrastructure, record amounts of emergency certified teachers, and a statewide teacher walkout demanding higher teacher pay and more school funding, the Oklahoma State Legislature passed a bill that raised taxes for the first time since 1990 to go towards education. Although teachers and support staff saw a pay raise, the bill was far short of the needed school funding that teachers and advocates pushed for.

A fifth year teacher whose dream was to enter the profession since she was five years old, Harris said that due to enormous classroom sizes, overloaded and ill-equipped teachers are often unable to build meaningful relationships with their students. 

“When a high school teacher sees 200 or more students in six classes that are 50 minutes each, building individual relationships with all students is a monumental task,” Harris said. 

Echoing the concerns from teachers around the state, Harris said class sizes are overflowing to the point where the fire department could easily issue citations to schools for classrooms that are over maximum occupancy. “This creates chaos for students when a teacher is not a master at classroom management,” Harris said.  “Many teachers are not properly trained to be able to empathize with students and try to understand them as an individual.” 

Nevertheless, the words “progress” and “focus” permeated throughout the presentation at Tulsa’s school board meeting, and there’s reason to believe the district is taking this disparity seriously.  Their rate of total school suspension and black student suspension has dropped significantly from previous years, most likely due to the aggressive goals TPS leaders have set.

For the 2017-2018 school year, TPS suspended roughly 1 in every 13 students.  Broken down by ethnicity, out-of-school suspensions affected only 1 in 20 white students, while 1 in seven black students were suspended.  Despite being an alarming disparity that leads to limited lifetime opportunities, these rates are substantial improvements from previous years. 

In 2015, Tulsa Public Schools suspended roughly 14% percent or one in every seven students, twice as many total students as were suspended in the most recently completed school year, according to federal data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

That year, roughly one in 10 white students and a whopping 1 in 4 black students were suspended out of school, indicating that in the last three years, TPS has cut suspensions in half for white students and has cut them nearly in half for black students.

The state of the district presentation explained that Tulsa has been focusing more on alternatives to out of school suspension, such as an in-school suspension known as TRAICE and cultivating stronger relationships between adults and students.  Harris said schools need to work to make their in-school suspension programs more effective. 

“In some schools, TRAICE is so unorganized that students do not see it as a punishment for their behavior,” Harris said.  “It is seen as a place where they can nap or scroll through Instagram.”

Harris said plainly that the state needs funding for education, the Department of Human Services, and mental health services.

Drew Edmonson, a candidate running for governor, has said he supports a raise in the Gross Production Tax on oil and gas drilling to help pay for education.  After a tour with teachers around the state, Edmonson said he also plans to push for social workers in schools.

“My pay has changed and I’m grateful, but my working conditions have not,” Harris said.  “I want my principal to be able to hire another teacher to teach U.S. History so that I can have 20 students in a class instead of 40.  Give me what I need to be an effective educator and my colleagues and I will move mountains.” 


20180710_161309Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has written for OU’s student newspaper the OU Daily as well as OKC-based Red Dirt Report. Deon received the Governor’s Commendation in 2017 for his videography highlighting a statewide distracted driving prevention program and runs a freelance video marketing service at indepthwithdeonfilms.com. He now lives in Tulsa, where he works as a policy intern at the Oklahoma Policy Institute. 

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