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Zero Suspensions And An Unexplained Leap In Excessive Absences In Miami-Dade Schools

Jul 9, 2017
Originally published on June 18, 2017 10:31 am

In the middle of the school year, Hayden Dallip was at home in Miami Gardens when he got a call from his seventh-grade daughter. “She was crying—she said, 'Daddy, hurry up and come to the school.' " The phone call home came after a fight with another student. “I said, 'what’s going on, what’s going on?' She said, ‘Please come to the school because they suspended me,” Dallip recounted.

Dallip says administrators at Andover Middle School said his daughter would be suspended for 10 days, effective immediately—but the school didn’t give him anything in writing, as required by state law.

The suspension also came more than a year after a district-wide rule banning out-of-school suspensions, leading to an impressive drop in the district’s discipline data: from more than 20,000 suspensions in 2014-2015 to zero suspensions the very next year. You can look at the data yourself here.

[This is the second installment in a two-part series on Miami-Dade’s overhaul of school discipline. Read Part 1: How Miami-Dade Schools Made Thousands of Fights Disappear]

Since the change went into effect, students like Dallip’s daughter are supposed to be referred to one of 11 so-called “Student Success Centers” throughout the district, where they can get counseling and academic support in lieu of being suspended.

“No one has ever mentioned that to me,” Dallip said when he learned of the district’s discipline overhaul. “That no students [are] supposed to get suspended anymore? Never, never, never, never,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure that most of those parents up there don’t know it either.”

The school principal didn’t return calls seeking comment. District administrators declined to do an interview for this story. Dallip, meanwhile, says his daughter served two 10-day out-of-school suspensions within a couple of months. WLRN has documented similar instances of off-the-books suspensions in the past, which the district called "isolated incidents."

A JUMP IN ‘EXCESSIVE ABSENCES’

Being gone from the classroom for that long would have flagged Dallip's daughter as having “excessive absences” in the district’s internal record-keeping system. The year the district’s no-suspension rule went into effect, the number of excessive absences skyrocketed district-wide—from about 33,000 to well over 50,000. 

Were those students with excessive absences suspended off the books? It’s unclear.

Part of that number could be explained by the way the district records attendance at its alternative programs. If students are removed from school and go to the success centers, they’re marked with a special “+” code. If they don’t go, they get a “U” for “unexcused absence.” 

Bernie Perlmutter, who runs the Children and Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami, said that practice smacks of “data gamesmanship,” and that Florida law suggests those absences should be considered suspensions.

“The school district may be proclaiming that we have eliminated out-of-school suspensions as we know it,” Perlmutter said. “But in fact, it’s just come back under another name, and it’s not being properly reported to the state.”

But with fewer than 5,000 total referrals to student success centers district-wide, that practice would only account for a fraction of the 20,000 additional excessive absences recorded throughout the year.

Instead, the school district speculates that the jump could be explained by principals doing a better job of reporting attendance at their schools, explaining that the district has strengthened efforts to fight truancy in recent years. “It could be possible that absences have not increased, but principals are doing a better job at coding/reporting,” wrote spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego in an email.

But the large increase in “excessive absences” is also consistent with what parents, teachers and students at more than a half dozen schools have told WLRN: that kids are being sent home for behavior without being marked suspended.

Jocelyn Guerrero, a mother with two children who attend Georgia Jones Ayers Middle School, said her son Estarlyn had been sent to success centers several times after outbursts in class. But he had also been sent home without being given an alternative. “They don’t follow the county’s rules,” she said of school administrators. “They do what they please.”

Guerrero wondered why she would sometimes get automated calls from the district after Estarlin had been sent home. “How is it that they can suspend your kid and then the school will call me saying he was absent for three days?” she asked.

‘LET’S GET THESE NUMBERS DOWN’

Stories like this have come up all over the country in school districts that have tried to make big changes to school discipline policies quickly. The trend goes back a few years, when a series of large-scale studies found students of color were getting suspended at higher rates, and more for minor offenses than their white classmates. The Obama administration urged districts to cut down on disparities in school discipline with official statements called “Dear Colleague” letters sent to every public school superintendent in the country.

“School districts and cities around the country have responded in many different ways,” said Sarah Yatsko, a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. But primarily, the driver is, ‘Let’s get these numbers down.' ”

Miami-Dade began reforming school discipline policies in 2005, responding to local pressure from groups like the NAACP, whose Florida chapter sent letters of its own to every principal in the state. “Because as we started looking at the data, the suspension rate, it was so many black kids,” recalled Shirley Johnson, who chairs the group’s statewide education committee.

Attempts to win statewide reform of “zero tolerance policies” in the Florida Legislature didn’t get far, but Miami-Dade moved alongside other big-city districts to limit the offenses for which students could be suspended. Even so, racial disparities remained: By 2014-2015, close to half of the district’s suspensions were concentrated in a much smaller fraction of all schools, schools with disproportionate numbers of black students, a pattern consistent with the findings of a report by the Advancement Project some five years earlier.

When Superintendent Alberto Carvalho went on national television to announce that Miami-Dade was doing away with out-of-school suspensions altogether in 2015, Johnson recalled, “Everybody wanted to know, ‘Well, how are we going to do it?’ "

Yatsko, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, says approaches that focus on reducing the number of suspensions often fall into a trap, creating perverse incentives for school administrators.

“What ends up happening is that schools find ways to do essentially what they were doing before, but just documenting it in a different way, or not documenting it at all, perhaps,” she said. “The ability to track accurately what is actually happening in these numbers will drive the ability to solve the problem.”

THE KNUCKLEHEAD PROBLEM

That problem, broadly speaking, is school discipline. Consider the school where Jocelyn Guerrero sends her kids. In the last year, schools in Miami-Dade were allowed to suspend students, Georgia Jones Ayers Middle School suspended close to 40 percent of its student body.

“Because you cannot have class and have chaos,” explained Robert Malone, a regular substitute teacher there who wrote his dissertation on school violence.

“What’s the big picture? The big picture is having 30 kids—25-30 kids in your classroom, and having them learn,” Malone said. “And if you have four or five cats who—I refer to them as knuckleheads—being a disruption, you can’t do that.”

“This is not like knocking on the door and running. We’re talking about actual fighting. You had situations where there may be some drugs and that type of thing. I mean, it was bad,” he said. 

Malone said he understands the motive behind the district’s drive to end suspensions, but that it’s not an easy fix. Schools that have felt the impact of the change most starkly are largely schools with a high concentration of poverty and all the challenges that brings: students who didn’t get enough sleep, students who have had to move a lot, students who have grown up with a parent behind bars or in communities racked by gun violence.

To really make a dent in all that, Malone says, “You need to have more committed counselors. You need to have a couple of therapists on-site.”

Instead of sending kids to success centers off-site, Malone suggested the district should focus on improving the way discipline is handled inside schools. “Whatever goes on at the success center, is that changing behavior? And clearly, it doesn’t appear to be. There may be some people who see a change, but I don’t.”

Teachers were reluctant to go on the record for this story. WLRN spoke with six teachers at four different schools who described inconsistent and often ineffective approaches to managing school discipline.

“Some teachers just can’t get anything done because you spend more time dealing with discipline than you should be,” explained Wendell Nibbs, who has taught physical education at Brownsville Middle School for 15 years. “Now, you can write [your students] up, " Nibbs said, pulling a stack of pink forms from his desk at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. Student Case Management forms, known as ‘referrals,’ track both misbehavior and any disciplinary consequences or support services given to a student after an incident. The forms come in triplicate, with one copy returned to the teacher after administrators have taken action.

“This is the most referrals I’ve ever written,” Nibbs said. “Now, because these things are so backlogged, I don’t get them back.”

Schools short on clerical staff sometimes re-assign teachers whose job it is to supervise students who get kicked out of class, Nibbs and others said. For Nibbs, a lack of reliable consequences for misbehavior compounds the difficulty of working with students in distress. “How can you have a program [to eliminate suspensions] if you don’t have the infrastructure for it?” he asked. “There’s a big disconnect because these kids are not getting a lot of services.”

The district has made incremental changes to improve support for students sent to success centers, beefing up staffing, and hiring a small number of additional counselors at high-needs schools. But Carla Hernandez-Mats, president of teachers’ union United Teachers of Dade, says the effort to reduce suspensions has not included input or training for rank-and-file teachers. “Teachers hear about these success centers, but when you don’t train teachers or the staff on what their focus [should be] and how to process [a] child that needs to be in one of these success centers that’s going to create other problems,” she said.

LEARNING FROM SEATTLE

Five years ago a school district outside Seattle, Highline Public Schools, became one of the first in the country to try to get to zero out-of-school suspensions, except in cases that endanger students or staff.

“I think it ended up being a lot bigger, and harder, than folks had anticipated,” said Superintendent Susan Enfield, who initiated the change. “While everybody supported that on paper, I’m not sure people really understood what it meant.”

What it meant, Enfield said, was changing the basic relationships between adults and kids inside schools. Highline spent a year holding community meetings and doing planning sessions with a group of 40 principals and teachers. They hired more staff and set up something like Miami-Dade’s ‘success centers’ inside each middle and high school. But there were still lots of problems.

“Principals, in some cases, were just sending kids home and not calling it a suspension so their numbers would look good, which is actually kind of illegal and unethical,” Enfield explained. “And they weren’t doing it to be illegal or unethical—they thought they were doing what was right. So on more than one occasion, I’ve had to get in front of principals and say, ‘Look, you guys, I am not interested in fake data, I am not interested in artificially low numbers.’

" 'Because at the end of the day, if you’re not accurately reporting what’s going on with discipline,” Enfield said she told staff, 'we don’t know how to support you.' "

In Miami-Dade, district administrators continue to say out-of-school suspensions have dropped to zero. “We knew there were going to be challenges,” Superintendent  Carvalho told the Miami Herald editorial board recently, referring to the district’s first year with the no-suspensions rule in place. “But I can submit to you, by everything we know, all the data we have, that it was darn good. I believe we actually saved lives.”

This is the second installment in a two-part series on Miami-Dade’s overhaul of school discipline. Read Part 1: How Miami-Dade Schools Made Thousands of Fights Disappear.

LOOK AT THE DATA YOURSELF

This table shows the number of out-of-school suspensions in Miami-Dade County Public Schools in 2014-2015, the year before the district instituted a rule banning suspensions. Suspensions are typically 3, 5, or 10 days long. "Duplicated Suspensions" refer to the number of total suspensions, so that a student with three suspensions over the course of the year would be counted three times. "Unduplicated Suspensions" refers to the number of students who were suspended at least once during the school year. Suspension and enrollment figures are included for charter schools as well, although they were not subject to the rule change instituted in district-operated schools.

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