Speaking out on civil rights

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Logo. (PRNewsFoto/U.S. Commission on Civil Rights) (PRNewsFoto/)

On Thursday, I traveled to Philadelphia to participate in a briefing meeting on the PA Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The topic was “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Addressing the Disparate Discipline of Students of Color, Students with Disabilities, & LGBTQ Students.” I shared the good work we are doing in SDoL to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Below are my opening remarks (edited for space).

Good afternoon. My name is Damaris Rau. I am the Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster. I have served in this position for 4.5 years and have been an educator for over 35 years in districts ranging from the most poverty stricken like the South Bronx in New York, to the most affluent, such as Greenwich, CT. What is the same across regions and across time has been that suspensions are used to punish students, not teach them. And the results are the same: Students of color are disproportionally suspended, resulting in disengaged youth who fill the school to prison pipeline. Punitive discipline like suspension leads to more crime and unhealthy behaviors. Suspension is the exact opposite of what disconnected youth need. The research is clear on this.

The School District of Lancaster has spent the last three and a half years working to reduce its high suspension rates. We are making progress: our overall suspensions are down 50 percent from 2014 to 2019.

A specific area of focus is the disproportionality of suspensions of black males in our middle schools. A study on suspension data conducted by Franklin & Marshall College revealed that that middle schoolers had the highest likelihood of being suspended in our district, and that black males in middle school are disproportionately suspended.

We found that disproportionate suspensions of our black males negatively affected their academic outcomes, including:

  • disproportionately high placement of students of color in special education;
  • underrepresentation students of color in high level classes like AP and Honors;
  • fewer students of color accessing our college dual enrollment programs, which provide college credit at no charge to the student;
  • and a disproportionate number of our black males not graduating from high school

However, the disproportionality has been reduced by 28 percent over the last two academic years. Black males are now about four percentage points more likely to be suspended than male students overall (23.2% vs. 19.3% overall), down from 12 percentage points a year ago (32% vs. 19.9%).

We have accomplished this by reflecting on our educational system and identifying the institutional practices that contribute to suspensions, especially for our black males.

  • We revised our student handbook and eliminated ambiguous language like “respect” and “insubordination.”
  • We trained staff on adverse childhood experiences and the impact on student brain development.
  • We shifted resources to provide additional social workers to support student social-emotional needs.
  • We are implementing a restorative practices approach to discipline and training staff in de-escalation strategies.
  • We provide a multi-tiered system of support for students experiencing both academic and behavior challenges
  • Finally, we regularly monitor suspension rates. We have found that what we monitor, gets done.

Now, we are rolling out Deep Equity training to all district employees. This framework, developed by Gary Howard, an author who has written extensively about equity, explores the concepts of equity, inclusion, implicit bias, and cultural competence. Based on our Equity Team research, we are also creating a formal mentoring program for middle school black males that will begin in February 2020.

Changing historical and institutional practices that negatively affect students of color is not for the faint hearted.  It takes courage to identify what is in the way of student learning and be honest about your own system.