The truth about consequences

Jefferson County Public Schools disproportionately imposes harsh punishments on black students

It’s a Saturday afternoon at Zion Baptist Church in west Louisville. In the basement of the elegant brick church, kids gulp last bites of hamburgers, slide out of aluminum chairs and scatter to upstairs rooms where video games, movies and literacy lessons await.

A few teenagers linger in the basement, gripping drumsticks. Andre, an affable, confident high school junior wearing fatigues and black-rimmed glasses, is poised to lead a small drum circle utilizing overturned orange Home Depot buckets dimpled from hours of practice. Six months ago, the church opened its doors on the weekends to keep members’ children and neighborhood youth occupied and out of mischief.

This afternoon, though, seven kids, mostly teenagers, all African-American Jefferson County Public Schools students, sit at a lunch table to share memories of getting into trouble.

All but one has been handed a discipline referral, a ticket to the school office where administration determines punishment. All but one has received an in-school, off-site or home suspension. Only one, Andre, has been temporarily transferred to an alternative school.

At first, tales of misconduct unfurl as a somewhat misguided pageant of injustice.

“I refused to go to ISAP (in-school suspension), and they suspended me!” a freshman girl states, an exasperated giggle for punctuation. Andre chronicles his middle school years spent picking fights and throwing books.

But once a layer of showmanship peels away, honesty surfaces.

“When I was first sent to middle school, I was scared,” Andre says. “So I go and act like I was bad.”

Across from him, Quinten, a 13-year-old with youthful innocence fastened into eyes as dark and round as vinyl records, remembers a suspension for “pounding” a kid in what he says was self-defense. Offering a footnote, Quinten adds, “See, if I don’t get attention, I’m bad. If I don’t get attention, I draw attention.”

And on the day he walloped his bully, attention he received: He says his mom took him to Chuck E. Cheese’s as a reward for sticking up for himself.

Listening to the stories, it’s easy to recall the combustibility of adolescence, pursuing an identity while pushing boundaries. Students will always act out, regardless of race or class.

Suspension may be inevitable, especially for violence, and in JCPS, it’s a key tool. The district abides by a strict code of conduct known as “zero tolerance.” Thirty downloadable pages list every rule, punishment and grievance procedure.

But for reasons that are difficult pinpoint, data shows JCPS imposes the harshest punishments on black students more frequently than white children. As a result of what’s been perceived as an unwillingness to address this disparity, several prominent lawyers have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

Last school year, of the roughly 8,300 total out-of-school suspensions issued in high schools, 62 percent, or 5,210, were given to roughly 2,500 black students (some received more than one). However, African-Americans make up just over one-third of the total high school population. That disparity is consistent in data LEO reviewed for the last four academic years.

In fact, since 2007, roughly 40 percent of the African-American male population on free and reduced lunch (an indicator of poverty) has been suspended at least once from high school. That group accumulates more suspensions than any other.

The pattern starts early. Last year, 78 suspensions were issued to JCPS kindergartners (yes, kindergartners), and 107 were issued the year before; 94 percent of those were given to students on free and reduced lunch, and 81 percent went to black students.

Of the 952 suspensions reported in elementary schools last year, mostly for fighting, black males received 58 percent of the suspensions, while they make up only 19 percent of the elementary population.

And this racial disparity crosses over socioeconomic lines. African-American males in the paid lunch (or higher income) category rack up a greater percentage of suspensions than the Caucasian males in that same group, as well.

Other school districts of similar size across the country, including Chattanooga, Tenn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., have exhibited similar discrepancy.

While schools may be at the center of this issue, many causes radiate out in concentric circles. Some blame a rise in single-parent households, social and economic policies, diluted morality among younger generations.

Then, of course, comes the most uncomfortable piece to this puzzle: biases cultivated over a lifetime, but frequently preserved in the ideal of a “colorblind” society.

“When you use the race term, (for) a lot of people, it’s an either/or — either you’re a racist or you’re not,” says Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies with UCLA’s The Civil Rights Project. “Negative stereotypes, whether we like it or not, may be playing into how we perceive various levels of adolescent behavior and how we react to them, whether we feel scared or not, whether we feel comfortable calling their parents.”

This issue of racial disparity in discipline has hung around JCPS for years. It’s captured the attention of the Kentucky NAACP, a group of church-affiliated activists known as CLOUT (Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together), parents, teachers and principals.

Also interested? The federal investigators who are weighing whether the discipline practices of Jefferson County Public Schools violate the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act.

Behind the complaint

Discipline inequity materialized as a problem across the country as early as 1975, when the Children’s Defense Fund showed that rates of school suspensions for black students significantly exceeded those of white students.

Thirty-five years later, in March of 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan highlighted the need for more civil rights enforcement in education. A report based on U.S. Department of Education statistics showed that more than 28 percent of black male middle school students had been suspended at least once. This is nearly three times the 10 percent rate for white males.

A year later, Brea Perry’s research would illuminate disproportionality in Kentucky. A team of child welfare advocacy lawyers approached Perry to identify the 10 districts that were suspending minority and special education students at a high rate, and her research showed JCPS led the state (Jefferson County is the most diverse and largest Kentucky district).

Special ed students comprised 16 percent of the total JCPS student population, yet represented 38 percent of total suspensions. According to an Office for Civil Rights complaint based on Perry’s research, African-American students in special education classes “fared even worse,” comprising 44 percent of the special ed student population but 71 percent of the sub-group’s suspensions.

The complaint also classifies JCPS’s three alternative high schools as the new “segregated schools” because so many black students end up there, and cites data that reveals African-American students in JCPS being suspended nearly twice as often as their Caucasian peers.

“Basically, what I show is that statistically, there is virtually no chance that these disparities are happening by chance alone,” Perry says. “So there’s a real pattern happening. I do this by looking at proportion of African-American suspensions we’d expect by chance versus what we actually see, the actual proportion.”

Last spring, with research in hand, Rebecca DiLoreto, litigation director for Lexington-based Children’s Law Center, approached all 10 districts identified as having a problem: Fayette, Boone, Christian, Hardin, Hopkins, Madison, Paducah Independent, Scott, Warren and Jefferson. The hope being that each district would take steps toward improvement.

But Jefferson County resisted. In May, a prominent group of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Children’s Law Center, and Legal Aid Society filed their complaint on behalf of six families (a few more have been added since) with the Office for Civil Rights. It contends that JCPS violates the Civil Rights Act and Disabilities Act with their “zero tolerance policies and vague and ambiguous discipline procedures.” Investigators may decide to take the complaint to federal court.

In contrast, DiLoreto says Fayette County immediately embraced recommendations lawyers put forth. Eight other districts have since agreed to work on the issue with the Kentucky Department of Education. While it’s unclear what concrete actions have actually been taken, six of the 10 districts have agreed to undergo what’s called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports Training, or PBIS.

As one might predict, this encompasses feel-good measures like affirmation when students behave appropriately, rather than only reacting to misconduct. But one of the key components uses data to block potential problems. For instance, a school’s discipline team may analyze what time of day trouble peaks, then initiate a plan to break the cycle.

The Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline, an organization funded through federal education grants, has implemented PBIS in 28 districts around the state. According to their data, overall behavior problems have decreased. So has racial disparity, though it’s still not eliminated.

Jefferson County remains the only district, out of the 10 identified, that’s protested claims brought in the complaint.

“What makes Jefferson County unique is how recalcitrant they are to addressing the problem,” DiLoreto says. “In our school systems today, we have to teach academics, but we also have to teach appropriate behavior, and maybe people resist that idea.”

LEO contacted former superintendent Sheldon Berman, who was leading the district when the complaint emerged. He says DiLoreto and her team recommended inadequate solutions, and that a program he ushered into the district’s elementary schools and middle schools, CARE for Kids, was far superior.

An evaluation of CARE for Kids completed by the district last year did show improvements to school climate in elementary schools.

But the complaint centered around middle and high schools, where the total number of suspensions handed out has been increasing over the last decade, with minorities time and again impacted the most. Plus, that’s just what’s on the books.

DiLoreto and other district sources tell LEO it’s not uncommon in JCPS for administrators to send kids home without ever recording the suspension. Bus suspensions are not documented either, despite the fact that being kicked off the bus can deny a student their only mode of transport, particularly in low-income families.

“They (the district) wanted to say, ‘Look at all we’re doing,’” DiLoreto says. “And our response, our concern was, well, ‘Look at what the numbers tell us about the lack of change and improvement.’”

But Berman’s not cowering. He’s adamant that if JCPS winds up in court, the district will prove that at least under his reign, JCPS forcefully confronted this issue.

“The point is we weren’t afraid of the suit,” he says by phone from his new home in Eugene, Ore. “If we were, we might have gone along with it, but we were doing much more than what they had asked.”

It should be noted that this complaint is not monetary in nature, nor does it allege intentional bias. Reforms in discipline policies stand as the end goal. A change in administration may have muddled progress. So far, DiLoreto says, current JCPS superintendent Donna Hargens has not met with lawyers directly to hear their concerns.

Kentucky Youth Advocates Director Terry Brooks sat in on meetings between Berman and the child advocacy lawyers and says he’s baffled by JCPS’s reaction.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric that they’re tackling this. But there’s not evidence that it’s working,” he says. “The phrase ‘Office for Civil Rights investigation’ does not ring happily for any school district, ever. So, you know, at best this is going to consume attention, resources and worry. At worst for the school district, perhaps for the kids … they’re going to be talking about these issues in federal court. So it still eludes me why they didn’t want to work this out as partners across the table.”

What’s most likely to occur, if investigators find cause for action, is that the Office for Civil Rights will issue a corrective action plan with which Jefferson County would have to comply. DiLoreto couldn’t guess on a timeline, but hopes JCPS can minimize the racial gaps sooner rather than later.

“This disparity matters because these children end up dropping out. These children fail.” DiLoreto says. “We consider a good education the way out of poverty, the way out of crime … it’s a way to build a successful country.”

Several studies have shown that children who amass suspensions and expulsions (JCPS says they do not expel) are more prone to land in the juvenile justice system, which doesn’t bode well for life as an adult.

A landmark 2011 Texas study that looked at individual school records of seventh-grade public school students over the course of six years showed nearly half of those students who were disciplined 11 or more times were in contact with the juvenile justice system. Only 2 percent of those without disciplinary actions wound up in trouble with the law.

This regressive domino effect is dubbed the “school to prison pipeline.” Fiscally, reversing the trend makes sense. In Kentucky, it costs $10,000 to educate a child every year. The annual cost to house an inmate is $30,000.

In 2009, the social justice group CLOUT became troubled when members — many of whom are JCPS parents — spoke of discipline practices that funneled kids away from classrooms. The charge of public schools is to educate all kids, after all, even the difficult ones.

They invited Jack Jacobs, executive director of Student Assignment, Health and Safety, on stage for a CLOUT assembly last April. Before an audience of 1,600, Jacobs, dressed in a dark suit, hands locked behind his back, agreed to look into discipline models with the potential to decrease suspension rates.

Chris Kolb, CLOUT’s co-president, says since that meeting, there’s been little action. He’s hopeful the new superintendent won’t ignore years of discipline data since she frequently touts the benefits of research guiding change.

“The data shows that JCPS needs a complete 180 turn on discipline because you’d be hard-pressed to get worse results than what you’re getting right now,” he says.

JCPS referred LEO’s questions about how the district is tackling discipline disparity to Jacobs. In a terse phone conversation, he says legally he cannot talk in depth, that discussing programs would impede the ongoing investigation.

Jacobs insists that JCPS has “great things going on,” adding that when LEO is ready to do an article not involving the civil rights complaint, but about JCPS programs and that alone, “we could do a heck of an article … but not under this scenario.”

Trouble in the classroom

Paul Helvey has a choice. The second year English teacher at Iroquois High School watches clusters of students lost in YouTube rather than their assignment — a screenplay adaptation of “Macbeth.” A few of his seniors work diligently on shoehorning Shakespeare into a script with the cast from “Jersey Shore” or Jay-Z and Southern rapper Lil’ Boosie. But several students, both minorities and white, flaunt their disregard, headphones on, heads bobbing.

Today’s class is being held in the library’s horseshoe of computers, which always means disorder is one turn-of-the-head away. Helvey leans over the computers to talk to students individually. Behind these distracted minds are capable kids, nearly adults. In hushed conversations he discusses choices: You’re almost done with your senior year. Do you want to graduate? Will you do the work at home?

In instances like these, Helvey could reach for a discipline referral and send them downstairs to the central office, but he chooses not to. The No. 1 reason behind high school suspensions last year was the mightily vague “failure to obey staff.” Disruptive behavior, also subjective, ranked fourth. Research has shown that behavior, and what’s deemed unacceptable, swings widely depending on the teacher.

At 34, Helvey looks more sitcom dad than the 20-something version of himself: a heavily side-burned guitarist embedded in Louisville’s music scene. (Much to the students’ amusement, a poster-size photo of him, mid-riff on stage, sits behind his desk amidst recent photos of his family.)

He credits those years spent touring with his band and working odd jobs with his willingness to dispel the archetype etched into teachers’ psyches. On his first day, he realized the “head of the class” authority figure template wouldn’t work. It’s not as much a race thing (Helvey’s white, and more than half of Iroquois’ students are not) as it is about age.

“When you’re trying to control the behavior of a teenager, I’d just as soon run over there and bang my head against a wall,” he says. “So instead, it becomes more about options.” Helvey says he doesn’t take excuses and holds high expectations for academics, but if a kid is out of line, he’d rather work to keep them in class than send them on their way.

He recalls one boy who unleashed a string of vulgarities during class, targeting Helvey and fellow students. “I think there are people who would look at that and say that’s unacceptable. That needs to go,” he says. “Me personally, I felt like we could step back from the ledge a bit.”

One day, in private, Helvey told the student that his outgoing ways made him a leader in class, whether he liked it or not, and that his acting out was derailing other students. It turned out that a crush on a girl who’d rejected him was the source of his angst.

Post-talk, the boy’s demeanor calmed, and Helvey now calls him a “great” student.

“It became an empowering situation for him rather than me just telling him how to act,” he says.

Teachers, especially those in large, comprehensive schools, with largely low-income students, like Iroquois, must juggle a safe environment with leaving no child behind, as the somewhat notorious saying goes.

Not surprisingly, it’s in these comprehensive schools where most suspensions occur. For instance, high-poverty schools, like Academy at Shawnee, Western and Iroquois, tallied around 600-800 suspensions in 2009-2010. Conversely, DuPont Manual, an academic magnet school with significantly fewer kids on free and reduced lunch, totaled 37. However, Central High School, a majority black school with 82 percent of kids qualifying for free and reduced lunch, only posted 70 suspensions.

“You can’t talk about this in a blanket way,” says Brent McKim, president of Jefferson County’s teachers union.

Approaches to discipline vary from building to building. Still, he says, JCPS teacher surveys have expressed frustration with feeling a lack of support when it comes to discipline. In other words, the framework to improve behavior needs improvement.

“As far as teachers are concerned,” he says, “we are open to looking at any strategies that are reasonable and have any likelihood of being effective.”

One way JCPS has tried to address this issue falls under the umbrella of cultural sensitivity. When executed well, this is not memorizing which black leaders to post on the bulletin board in February, or sprinkling economics lessons with cringe-worthy slang like “scrilla.”

Since 2009, JCPS has coordinated four-day cultural competency sessions twice every school year. This year they’ll pay $40,000 to Gary Howard, a well-known author on the topic, to lead the training. Schools that choose to participate send teams of up to 10 staffers.

Exercises focus on acknowledging cultural and societal differences that lie between college-educated, largely white, middle-class staff and the diverse range of kids they must teach, while recognizing that genuine relationships can still form.

“Differences make a difference, but they don’t have to get in the way,” Howard says, reciting his mantra.

Of Jefferson County’s 155 public schools, 26 have taken part, and 110 of the district’s 6,400 teachers have completed the training. A brief district evaluation of the program shows decreased discipline problems, particularly among minority and poor students.

But it’s unclear how well the teams who attend the institute implement what they learn.

“The key is the ongoing work,” says Howard, who returns to JCPS in April. “How do we bring that to scale for the district? And that’s the next challenge.”

You’d think Daniel Losen, with The Civil Rights Project, would preach saturating schools with cultural awareness training. But in an hour-long conversation, much of the time was spent advocating for dynamic, challenging instruction that hooks all kids: minority, white, male, female. A recent 500-plus-page audit of JPCS identifies the need for stronger, more engaging curriculum as well as teaching methods.

“I knew if I was not well-prepared … I would not get the kind of behavior I was looking for,” he says. “And there are days like that. All teachers have moments like that.”

Losen adds that teachers should realize, “All kids bring something to the classroom.”

That takes preparation, too. For 10 years, Losen taught in an urban district outside Boston and used to write out each student’s positive characteristics. If none popped out, it signaled more time should be spent with that child.

For Aletha Fields, a veteran Iroquois High School English teacher, dictionary-length audits and four-day cultural institutes still feel like passive attempts at addressing a salient yet longstanding issue.

“We commit ourselves to what we think is important. Likewise, the district will commit to what they think is important. They haven’t done that with this,” she says. “Some kids are just dead wrong. They ain’t acting right. And then there are those instances where kids amass referrals over behaviors I’m certain that if the child had a different skin color, it wouldn’t be an issue, wouldn’t be seen as threatening or menacing.”

Discipline referrals also reflect racial disparity. A June 2011 report by the Kentucky Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed that of the 111,270 teacher discipline referrals in Jefferson County Public Schools for 2008-2009, 61 percent went to African-Americans.

“Statistically, the likelihood of this racial imbalance in discipline rates occurring by chance is less than 1 in 1,000,” the report reads.

Fields, who’s of African-American and Native American heritage, cuts sharp opinions with maternal compassion. Her nickname, she says, is “The Velvet Hammer.” She harbors personal frustrations with JCPS on the issue: One of her own sons was repeatedly suspended for conduct she didn’t feel warranted the punishment. She watched a steady hatred of school evolve.

Research from both outside and within the district has indicated African-American students tend to receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts for minor violations, often categorized as “disruptive behavior.”

Fields strives for a biographer’s knowledge on her students, so that when one of them, say a teenage mom, chats away in class, she knows it’s not out of disrespect. School is that teen’s one social outlet, her respite from adulthood. Fields doesn’t tolerate it, but she doesn’t kick her out, either.

On a late fall afternoon, Fields leans back at her desk etched with messages from former students. She mulls racial disparities in discipline, academics, dropout rates. Kids stroll in looking for a snack or asking about an assignment, but really just angling for a moment of her attention.

A co-worker wearing a bright red turtleneck walks in, a walkie-talkie quietly squawking at her hip.

“Excuse me,” she says, and then bends over to whisper in Fields’ ear.

“I just wanted to let you know what was going on,” she says before leaving.

Fields nods. Her face falls but never frowns.

A shooting at 22nd and Burnett a few nights before ignited a scuffle between two students, one of whom just hours before had been in Fields’ room giving her a morning hug.

Fields worries this fight will only inflame other behavior issues. She knows just how permeable school walls are to what happens once the last bell rings.

Outside school walls

For a few years, Stephon Gilkey’s morning commute to Meyzeek Middle School held one certainty. At the bottom of the Jackson Street off-ramp, a 13-year-old boy would stand in the dark haze of early morning, waiting for Gilkey’s car to appear.

As Youth Services Coordinator at Meyzeek for 15 years, Gilkey dedicated himself to helping those kids carrying excess personal baggage. He coordinated mental heath, doctor, or dentist appointments. Neither health insurance nor transportation was an issue. He’d work it out. If a child lived nearby and didn’t show up for school, Gilkey would occasionally rouse them out of bed.

“I spent a lot of times just getting kids ready to be in the classroom,” he says.

Gilkey, who retired four years ago due to illness, remembers manning the front doors of the building as middle-schoolers streamed in. He and the principal would greet each child by name and survey them for averted, sad eyes, a noxious kick at the door, dirty clothes — any sign that something was amiss. One morning, he noticed a father dropping off his son, rather than the mother. An innocent inquiry into why resulted in heaving sobs about his parents’ nasty fight the night before.

Gilkey treasures his time at Meyzeek, bouncing from stories of one child to the next, picking up his phone to scroll through pictures of grown students he keeps in touch with.

The young boy stationed at the off-ramp continues to call Gilkey almost 10 years later. His load was particularly heavy: physical abuse at home, poverty, and a sourness to life unfit for a child. For him, the off-ramp, an adult’s consistent arrival, felt safe. Unfortunately, Gilkey says, once in high school, the boy’s behavior exploded and suspensions ensued. He dropped out and wound up serving time in jail.

Still, under Gilkey’s watch, the therapeutic approach to behavior seemed to work. Suspensions and referrals dipped at Meyzeek. When suspensions occurred, he arranged meetings with parents and students to devise a plan going forward. If it had to happen at the family’s home, so be it.

Cliché as it may be, that necessitates time and money.

Gilkey says he was lucky at Meyzeek. Since half of the enrolled students are magnet kids, many from the East End (who also came with issues, he’s quick to note), parents helped fund support programs.

Former Meyzeek principal Keith Look, who now heads Academy at Shawnee, says in tight times, funds for youth services drop, affecting schools with a majority low-income population.

“Look at the struggling economy. Who is this toughest on? The children whose parents are unable to make ends meet,” Look wrote in an email “When times get tough, therapeutic resources in schools must increase.”

He says overworked school counselors don’t always have the time to intensely work with struggling kids.

Gilkey, who won awards for his work at Meyzeek, has consulted with other public schools. He says a lot of disciplinarians, typically assistant principals, face pressure to act tough. He animates a bit when talking about it, stiffening his neck, clenching a fist.

“You want to come up and be the baddest principal, disciplinarian in the district,” Gilkey says. “What that tells me is that you’re not really working well with kids. If you’re having to suspend the same kid over and over and over again, then there’s something going on.”

Gilkey and other advocates believe suspension should be the last resort. Without school, kids from single-parent, working households may be left home alone. Roughly 60 percent of JCPS students hail from low-income or working households.

There’s no panacea, but Gilkey, still clutching the phone stocked with former students, can’t let go of what worked for him.

“When you build relationships, you really have less issues,” he says. “It’s when you don’t build relationship things really go south.”