OKC Public Schools hopes to curb high number of suspensions of minorities

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) suspend a higher percentage of black students than any other district in the country, according to a recent study.

Superintendent Rob Neu says that's going to change.

“We lead the country, if you will, in disproportionate discipline,” Neu said Tuesday.  “That's a pretty alarming statistic.”

He is referring to a recent report from UCLA, which says 75 percent of black male high school students and 54 percent of black female high school students in OKCPS were suspended at least once in 2012.

45 percent of all high school students in the district were suspended that year as well.

“Out of school suspension is invasive academic surgery,” Neu said, “and we really need to be using those in the most extreme circumstances.”

OKCPS conducted their own internal audit, which showed an “over-suspending” of black and Hispanic students as well.

Neu said suspending students for truancies, tardies, absences, dress code violations, etc. may be excessive and the district is currently reviewing their discipline procedures.

A key issue, he said, will be looking at student behavioral issues as a signal - an opportunity to intervene.

“Trying learning to their interests, engaging them in their education, is step one,” Neu said, “ and let's prevent these disciplinary actions becausea lot of times what the kids are telling us is they're bored.  They're frustrated.  They don't want to be in school.  They act out, and so we give them their wish by suspending them.  We've got to stop that by being preventive and engaging them first.”

Neu said OKCPS teachers are not racially biased. He says it’s a national trend.

The district is the subject of a U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights investigation, alleging race-based harassment, retaliation and discrimination against Hispanic and black students, relating to discipline.

“If they're not attending school, then when they do show up, we suspend them.  That doesn't really seem to fix the problem,” Neu said.

OKCPS is forming 'Change Lead Teams,' consisting of teachers, parents, students, community members, business leaders, and a representative from the district office to identify the real problem holding back students and develop the right approach to help them stay in school.

But it's not a solo effort.

The district is getting help from the OKC-County Health Department.

"Our hope is that through this program, we're able to improve graduation rates," Shannon Welch, OCCHD Director of Community Health, said.

Their staff is helping seven OKCPS schools learn how to use recess to help kids burn off energy, and connect kids to emotional counseling and other
services.

"That helps them to be able to focus better when it's time to learn," Welch said, "and research has shown that it helps them to behave better when
they're in class."

“Forget the color of their skin,” Neu said.  “What's going to make each child successful is going to be different per the child.”

Neu said he would like to have new discipline procedure steps in place by the start of the 2015-16 school year.

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