by Rebeca Acosta
After a complaint in 2014, the Office of Civil Rights conducted an investigation. The complaint was on the disproportionality of African American students receiving referrals, suspensions and other disciplinary actions. Students across Milwaukee Public Schools would make the same complaint today, 6 years later.
Earlier in the year of 2017, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors and The United States Department of Education created a resolution that aims to help in decreasing the disproportionate disciplinary rates of African-American and Latino males to White males in Milwaukee Public Schools. The agreement was to implement an Office of Civil Rights (OCR) committee in all MPS Middle and High schools in order to ensure change happens to solve the issue and to stop further issues from occurring.
Black or African American students represented 51.4% of the district’s total enrollment in 2019-2020, when the school year ended on March 13, 2020 due to COVID-19. Examining all behavior events documented by staff members for behavior incidents, 79.25% of all events were documented for Black students, for a disproportionality of 28.19% Looking specifically at behavior referrals for behaviors coded as “learning environment,” 78.93% of all “learning environment” referrals were written for Black students. Looking just at behavior referrals for subjective behaviors (defined as chronic disruption, disorderly conduct, endangerment, inappropriate personal property, inappropriate use of electronics, personal threat, substantial environmental disruption, and verbal abuse), 78.71% of all subjective referrals were written for Black students.
Looking at the specific resolutions of a restraint being used or police involvement, we also see disproportionality. Of all behavior referrals in which a restraint was used, 75% were with a Black student and of all behavior referrals in which police were called, 90% involved a Black student.
In early September, MPS had a Broadcast where testimonies were given in support of Resolution 2021R-007 . The resolution states that “The District shall suspend no student below the sixth grade or under the age of 12. The resolution explains That suspensions and expulsions shall be tools of last resort and that when a student is referred to the school’s office for disciplinary action, the first response shall be to seek interventions and attempts to change the student’s conduct, not to default to suspension or expulsion. It also adds that the Administration explores further opportunities to train school staff, parents, and students in cultural awareness, conflict resolution, violence prevention, restorative justice, tolerance for divergent viewpoints, etc.
Testimonies from MPS students and community leaders expressed how such actions are reflective of underlying problems. Additionally, testimonies advocated for the use of restorative practices. Restorative practices are steps taken before disciplinary action that allow both parties to have a conversation on the problem. Restorative practices are a step to combating implicit and explicit bias, and understanding the student.
The Office of Civil Rights is a first good step in the direction to end the racial disparity in MPS. Now more than ever, in MPS and across all districts, the fight to end racial disparity in education has to be on the forefront of the agenda.