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ONLY ON KOLD: The color of punishment

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

It's a fact. Kids who get suspended and expelled from schools are less likely to graduate from school. They're more likely to struggle to make money during their lives and more likely to be involved in the prison system.

It's also a fact that schools suspend and expel black and Hispanic students at a higher rate than whites. The U.S. Department of Education said that in a report that came out earlier this year.

University of Arizona Psychology professor Michael Sulkowski said dealing with the issue of school suspensions and expulsions is a no-brainer, because it affects all of us.

He asks, "Do we spend the time, money, and resources now, early to prevent some of these problems from becoming massive and systemic? Or do we wait until it becomes a burden of society?  I say we should be intervening now if not yesterday."

So what is the situation here in Southern Arizona? For more than a month we called Southern Arizona districts and pulled the numbers of suspensions and expulsions from three local school districts, to see what the story is in our backyard.

Here's what we found. In Amphitheater Public Schools Hispanic students are 39 percent of the student body, but 55 percent of the suspended and expelled students this year, and 52 percent last year. Black students make up about 5 percent of the student population, but 11 percent of all suspensions and expulsions this year, and 7 percent last year.

We asked Todd Jaeger, Amphi's associate to the superintendent, his reaction to the numbers.

He said, "What I know is that in our district discipline is applied based on a code of conduct that essentially (is) applied without regard to race because it deals specifically with instances of behavior. So the numbers simply indicate data, but they don't to me suggest anything inappropriate - certainly not discrimination."

Hispanics are the majority at TUSD, and their long-term suspensions are 3 percent higher than their percentage of the student body this year. Black students make up 6 percent of the population, but double that when it comes to long-term suspensions.

In Marana, Hispanics received serious punishments 2 percentage points below their percentage of the student body.

Black students, who make up only 2 percent of the population, got 5 percent of the serious punishments.

Sunnyside School District told us they weren't able to break down their statistics by race.

Sulkowski said there are a variety of reasons why minorities face serious discipline more often than white students, but he said research shows "the reasons for (minorities) being expelled or suspended are usually relatively minor and related to defiant behavior as opposed to aggressive or violent behavior."

Debbi Embry is the president of the Tucson Urban League. She's worked with school districts across the country during her career, and said a lot of times it's a matter of the administrators and teachers simply not realizing what this data says.

"I do think there's some implicit bias that exists within our school districts," she said. "If you have districts and superintendents in a room and they're presented with this data, hopefully with some of them you'll create an ‘A-ha' moment."

Jaeger said looking at the numbers could lead districts to look in the mirror.

"When you see data like this, it is of concern and needs to be understood so that perhaps there's some kind of response that we can put in place that protects against this kind of thing from occurring," he said.

Copyright 2014 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

 

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