Members of the education committee of Jacksonville’s NAACP Monday asked why the school district is still disproportionately suspending black students, compared to non-black students, based on district data.

 

Duval County school district officials answered that they’re making principals undergo “climate and culture” training and training on how to recognize “implicit bias” when dealing with students. They are also increasing opportunities for alternatives to suspension, such as restorative justice techniques.

And they’re scrutinizing school deans and principals regularly to ensure they’re adhering to the district’s code of conduct, which spells out student punishments.

Jackie Simmons, the district’s executive director of discipline and student support, said he has found “many instances in which the infraction consequences are not equally yoked,” where black students received harsher punishments than non-black students for the same infraction.

“My office can now track that,” he said. “We’ve been afforded the opportunity to look at the data with principals and deans and to correct things early, to isolate the issues and problems causing African-American students’ disproportionate representation in out-of-school referrals.”

Several NAACP leaders said they wish the district would make cultural sensitivity training mandatory, rather than the current voluntary offerings available for teachers and school staff.

“It should not be by choice; it’s a need,” said former School Board member Connie Hall, who is a member of the NAACP education committee.

Added Beverly Shields, an NAACP committee member and former district administrator: “I’ve seen teachers set kids off and they don’t know what they did. Then the teachers want to write a referral” for poor student behavior.

NAACP member and retired Duval region chief Lawrence Dennis told of a sixth grade boy who was told to pull off his hoodie but he refused. Some educators and Dennis spoke with the boy as they walked the halls and the boy broke down in tears, explaining that he was having “flashbacks”of his younger brothers’ death a year before.

“The worst thing you can do in a situation like that is overreact,” Dennis told the committee, adding that school principals can set the cultural tone for their schools.

Several NAACP committee members said educators need more training and support to deal with some students’ complicated and traumatic home life.

Some on the NAACP committee asked Simmons why in-school suspensions, which are supposed to be an alternative to out-of-school suspensions, are not available at all schools.

Simmons could not say definitively if every middle school and high school has an in-school suspension room and a specialist who can intervene with troubled students, because some principals may have reassigned them to fill other school roles. Also, the district does not require in-school suspension rooms for elementary schools, he said.

Most schools do have deans or other administrators who are supposed to work directly with troubled students, Simmons added.

Some schools also are sending misbehaving students to serve in-school suspension at nearby schools or are doing “classroom suspensions,” where students go to another classroom until the relationship between that student and his or her teacher calms down, Simmons said.

But Shields said that is problematic, too. She said teachers known for good discipline practices unfairly get these children after they act up, adding to their classroom size and burden.

“That causes animosity with the staff,” Shields said. “It’s been happening for years.”

Timothy Sloan, a Duval parent and NAACP member, asked the group for more ideas, beside teacher training, to resolve discipline disparities. Shields suggested that more alumni and community members get involved in schools, helping individual teachers to meet students’ needs.

Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083