Milwaukee struggles to reduce suspensions for black students

In 2012, the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) suspension rate for black students was 85% of the district’s total suspensions. Today, little has changed according to a report presented to a school board committee on Oct. 5. This is despite a January 2018 agreement with the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education to reduce the disparity between black students and students of other races in suspension and other disciplinary measures.

That’s not to say MPS hasn’t tried to improve. In fact, the district has dramatically reduced suspensions as a primary school climate management tool. Suspensions for all students have been cut in half over the past decade, but the suspension gap between black students and their peers remains.

The problem is more than raw numbers. What the Civil Rights Office found was that the disciplinary action taken against black students was disproportionately harsher compared to other students. For example, if a white student blasphemes a teacher, that student could be given detention. A black student would more likely be suspended.

A long history of testing

The conclusions of a 2014 national civil rights office study triggered inquiries in several school districts across the country into disciplinary disparities for minorities and students with disabilities. Milwaukee was one of those neighborhoods.

Although SPM Superintendent Gregory Thornton was aware of the investigation in MPS, he did not share this investigation with the MPS school board according to board chair Michael Bonds and other board members. (I was a board member at the time and I do not recall any such communication.) In the end, a agreement was reached and signed by Superintendent MPS Darienne Driver and the Civil Rights Office. The MPS school board was never a party to the agreement.

Federal investigators probably didn’t care who signed the deal as long as someone in authority agreed to the settlement.

Suspension rates plummeted under Thornton even before inquiries, and he continued to push the school board to do more. The school board alone was attempting to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” by reducing the use of police interventions for school discipline issues. The board looked for alternatives such as counseling and mentoring.

A controversial issue was the expulsion of MPS students without services. Today, students are still expelled from regular classes, but the district provides services for these students to continue their education.


Thornton provided monthly reports on the drop in suspension rates. But school board members were hearing from teachers and administrators that failure to suspend students was starting to cause schools to lose control. Educators who had relied on tougher discipline to maintain order in their classrooms and schools felt that the tools they had left were insufficient to accomplish the task. Some managers reportedly raised their hands in the air and said nothing could be done.

It was not clear from the data whether the decrease in suspensions in Milwaukee was the result of educators using different tools to maintain an orderly educational environment, or whether the buildings were in chaos.

There are other metrics that could provide insight into the school climate in addition to suspension and expulsion rates: student and teacher turnover from year to year, absenteeism rate for both groups , the pass / fail rate, the use of alternatives to suspensions.

Better communication was needed then and now. Teachers and administrators who have functioned one way throughout their careers must learn to function in a different way. After all, it wasn’t until 2007 that the Milwaukee School Board voted to repeal a provision allowing District Security Assistants to handcuff unruly students. Even educators who want to make change need training, and it takes time.

MPS pleads its case

MPS is still struggling with some of the same issues. Much of its educators still come from communities with little experience with minority students. Whatever policies are adopted, it is the classroom teachers and administrators who manage their buildings who must enforce those policies.

On October 5, Matthew Boswell, Senior Director of School Services, described the measures taken by the district to reduce the disproportionality of discipline. Many of these actions were similar to actions previously undertaken by the district. These include offering alternatives to suspensions, ensuring that counseling and support services are used and analyzing individual school data to improve actions,

Boswell explained that much of the educator training done the previous year had to be delivered online due to COVID-19. A new training session was coming in a day or two.

Later in the meeting, Boswell was questioned by board members asking how many employees were participating in such training and whether the training was voluntary or mandatory. The number of staff involved in the training in September was only a few hundred. The district has around 10,000 employees. Superintendent Keith Posley responded that such training was necessary and was part of a three-year plan.

Questions asked

“How do we approach students with social / emotional concerns and not just label them as discipline issues? Asked Angela Harris, chair of the Black Educators Caucus. Seven years after the civil rights complaint was filed with the Department of Education, she added, “our district still has not identified the root causes of black student behavior and linked those causes to issues. strategies and interventions tested over several years that are effective and equity used by teachers and administrators.

Three other speakers identified themselves as members of the Anti-racist White Educators of Milwaukee group. All three said MPS needed to do more, but offered few other suggestions to spend more money on fixing the problem. One speaker said: “Budgets are moral documents. “

When the meeting turned to comments and questions from board members (called principals in Milwaukee), school board principal Henry Leonard summed up the feelings of other board members: “It’s very frustrating.” , did he declare. Looking for specific information on what strategies are working and what are not, he asked, “Are there any schools that we can use as an example?

Boswell offered none. “I don’t want to officially name these schools because I don’t think it’s appropriate. I would be more than happy to share these schools with Principal Leonard if needed… We will definitely look into that.

Board members could understand why the administration did not want to single out schools that were clearly failing to reduce suspensions. But why wouldn’t they want to shine a light on those who are doing well?

Director Aisha Carr pressed Boswell. She wanted him to publicly spotlight schools that were doing well, and not just some of the more privileged schools. “I would like to see schools that have struggled. “

Boswell said he would come back with a response to this request. He went further by declaring that the whole community must be more involved in solving the problems facing our young people. When forums and meetings were held, few organizations and community members attended.

Sequanna Taylor, who chairs the committee, suggested that students who are having problems maybe join the conversation.

Superintendent Posley reflected on his 30 plus years of study: “Since I’ve been in this business we’ve been talking about alternatives to suspensions.

Two days after an MPS committee reviewed the disciplinary issue in the district, another MPS committee met on October 7 to view a PowerPoint presentation on “Black Lives Matter Year of goal. “ What was proposed had a direct bearing on how black students perceive themselves and their academic success.

Professional development topics offered for staff members included how to engage with students without bias, language to avoid, and courageous conversations about race, among others.

Schools were encouraged to present the Black Lives Matter projects and to the families involved.

In Milwaukee public schools, the struggle continues.

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