Providence superintendent: Racism at core of suspension disparities

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Chris Maher_284966

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The outgoing superintendent of Providence Public Schools said racism was to blame for an imbalance in which students are being suspended from school when they misbehave.

The comments by Superintendent Chris Maher came at the first joint meeting of the Providence School Board and Providence City Council Wednesday night. The school department presented recent out-of-school suspension data to the officials and discussed efforts to further decrease the number of suspensions.

The data, presented by Dr. Marco Andrade from the school department, showed 24.5% of male students suspended this year were black, while black males make up just 15.9% of the total student population. Similarly, 25.2% of female students suspended this year have been black, while only 16.5% of the total female population is black.

Andrade said black, multiracial and Native American students are disproportionately suspended from school, while Asian, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic and white students are not disproportionately suspended.

“I think it’s racism,” Maher said when asked by Councilman Luis Aponte about the reason behind the racial disparities. “I don’t know of another good reason we could give of why African American students are disproportionately suspended.”

The school district has been working for years to decrease its out-of-school suspension rates in order to keep students in school and learning. The data presented Wednesday showed progress in that area, with a 45% decrease in suspensions from April 2015 to April 2019. A total of 1,791 students have been suspended out of school from the beginning of this school year through April.

“We have a lot of work to do in this area,” Maher acknowledged, saying progress has been made but describing it as “inadequate and incomplete.”

In particular, the school district is trying to decrease suspensions for minor infractions like insubordination and disorderly conduct. A 2016 statewide law, which Maher said the school district supported, called on out-of-school suspensions to be reserved for the worst behaviors, such as threats or behavior that substantially interferes with the ability of other students to learn.

The school department data said out-of-school suspensions for the more minor infractions of insubordination or disorderly conduct have decreased by 73% over four years. There have been 549 such suspensions this school year.

The City Council and School Board also received a presentation by a group of students in Young Voices, a nonprofit organization for urban youth. The students presented research compiled over nearly two years, entitled “Girls of Color Addressing Disparities in Providence Schools.”

The report was compiled using data from the school department, the R.I. Department of Education, R.I. Kids Count and surveys with students conducted by Young Voices. The students said they found issues with discipline, favoritism, and a lack of cultural sensitivity from some teachers.

In particular, the group said they wanted a more “caring environment” at school, with teachers more compassionate to students issues like “poverty, transportation, violence and child care.” They pointed to surveys conducted by the state that showed, for example, only 25% of students at Classical High School felt their teachers were concerned when they walked into class upset. 

“We are tired of being constantly asked to complete surveys with nothing being done,” said Adriana Rodriguez-Soto, a sophomore at Classical.

“I don’t feel like I’m listened to,” said Melanie Nunez, also a Classical sophomore.

The report quoted students who said they thought gender and race factored into their treatment from teachers. “I think discipline in my school is biased because some students get away with things while others don’t,” one student said.

Asked after the meeting what she thought of Maher’s assessment that racism contributed to out-of-school suspensions, Nunez said she was “1,000% sure” it was true.

Nkolika Onye, the school department’s executive director of student supports, said there are trainings planned in “restorative practices,” which focus on helping students with the root of the negative behaviors and not just on discipline and rules broken. Maher also said staff members are receiving racial bias training.

Council President Sabina Matos, who said this was the first-ever joint meeting of the two bodies, announced she hoped to create a joint committee of board members and city councilors to address the issues brought up by the students.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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