Black students are many times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates in some of the area’s wealthiest school districts, according to federal data released last week.
In Saratoga Springs schools during the 2015-16 school year, black students were at least nine times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white classmates. Saratoga’s black students were 11 times more likely to be suspended than white students during the 2013-14 school year, according the federal Education Department Civil Rights Data Collection.
Black students in Niskayuna, Mohonasen and Guilderland, all districts with at least 100 black students in 2015, were at least four times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates that year.
“I definitely think it’s an issue they need to address, and it’s long overdue,” said Dora Lee Stanley, who has lived in Saratoga Springs for 40 years and had five kids educated in the district, with the last graduating in 2010. She said during their time in Saratoga schools, her kids experienced racial slurs, a dearth of diversity among teachers and staff and, a lack of classes that introduced students to cultural differences – problems she said she doesn’t think have been alleviated since her kids graduated.
“(Other students) are not exposed. They don’t see teachers, they don’t see administrators, they don’t see people in their community, people of color,” Stanley said. “So there is fear; there is a fear factor, and there is no exposure to mitigate those feelings.”
Another resident, the white mother of a Saratoga student who is black, also described incidents in which she felt her son was treated differently because of his race. (The mother did not want to be identified because she feared retaliation.)
She said when her son was in elementary school, he and a pair of white students were the last to finish an assignment. The teacher made the entire class wait as they finished their work. The teacher asked her son if he was close to finishing, and he flashed two thumbs up – a sign the mom said she used with her son at home.
The teacher, however, interpreted the thumbs up as a negative and sent her son to the principal’s office, she recalled. The mom was called in to the principal’s office and treated as if her son had done something far more serious than he had, she said. Meanwhile, she said, the two white students were not sent to the principal’s office.
“My child is black, and he was sitting with two white children and they were all doing the same thing. What do you think happened there?” the mom said, adding that, at the time, she didn’t think the incident was racially driven but that she has started to view it that way in hindsight. “How can three boys be holding up the class and only one gets punished?”
Graphic by Kathryn Hume/Daily Gazette
Saratoga Springs city schools Superintendent Michael Patton, who started in that position in January, said he has yet to analyze discipline data by racial subgroups, a common and widely analyzed data point in education, but that he plans to as the school year wraps up.
“It’s going to be a great conversation for us to continue to have as a district,” Patton said. “This gives us the opportunity to reflect on our practices as administrators, thinking about handling individual situations with students on student discipline, to make sure we are fully aware of what the research and data are showing us.”
He highlighted efforts to encourage and reward positive behavior among all students in the district, as well as a three-year initiative with an organization, Generation Ready, aimed at helping the district develop “culturally proficient” curriculum and academic offerings.
If further analysis bears out racial disparities in discipline, Patton said, administrators will look into individual schools and develop teacher training aimed at alleviating those disparities.
Black students make up small shares of the student body in districts outside the region’s biggest districts – Albany and Schenectady, where black students are also suspended at higher rates than white students – and that may skew the higher suspension rates to a certain degree. In Schenectady schools, black students in 2015 were more than twice as likely to be suspended as their white counterparts, and, on average, a black male Schenectady student missed more than two school days due to suspension.
But the disparities arise across multiple suburban districts. In 10 out of 19 area districts with at least 30 black students, those students were at least four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
Shenendehowa schools had one of the lower disparities among suburban districts: the 230 black students there were 3.4 times more likely to be suspended than white students. The 360 black students in South Colonie schools were twice as likely to be suspended.
Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake schools Superintendent Patrick McGrath said his district’s differences in suspension rates – black students were 10 times more likely to be suspended than white students – was at least partly a function of small numbers. During the 2015-16 school year, the district had 38 black students, 1.2 percent of enrollment, and eight of them received an out-of-school suspension, according to the federal data. McGrath pointed out that black students missed eight days of school due to suspension out of more than 200 missed school days among all suspended students.
He also highlighted that in the 2016-17 school year, for which federal data is not available, three black students were suspended out of 69 total suspensions.
“The numbers are pretty small when you are talking about 3,000 students, and swing pretty dramatically from one student to the next,” McGrath said. “I can honestly tell you I see our code of conduct being applied equally across and compassionately across all of our student body.”
In a statement from spokesman Matt Leon, the Niskayuna school district said disciplinary issues are handled through the district’s code of conduct, which the district works to implement “in a way that is fair and appropriate in all cases.”
“While the data points require deeper analysis to draw specific conclusions, all issues of diversity and equity do warrant serious attention,” the statement said.
The statement also highlighted efforts the district is undertaking: adding a new position for a diversity relations liaison, who will review data of student subgroups and work on diversity issues; hiring a diversity consultant earlier this year; and moving toward more teacher training around being more responsive to cultural differences.
In Mohonasen, where in 2015 the district’s 100 black students were suspended at rates more than four times higher than that of their white peers, Superintendent Kathleen Spring, in a prepared statement, acknowledged the discipline data raised concerns, and highlighted efforts to use restorative practices that focus on building relationships and resolving behavioral issues in more constructive and less punitive ways.
The district showed a lessening of its disciplinary disparities compared with the 2013 school year, when black students in the district were 7.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students.
“Obviously, we are concerned about any data that indicates there is a bias in our school,” Spring said. “The district’s intent is to have a system in place that cannot discriminate.”