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Louisiana education leaders try to lessen school suspensions

by The Associated Press | February 21, 2021 at 6:00 p.m.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Amid data showing more than twice as many Black students are suspended than their white peers, Louisiana’s educators are launching a program aimed at shrinking out-of-school suspensions by giving K-12 school administrators, principals and counselors more training to meet students’ social and emotional needs.

“If we can better understand what our kids are going through, where they are coming from, what their beliefs are, then we have a better chance of meeting them where they are and helping them to be successful,” state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said.

The Advocate reports the program seeks to show adults and students how to set goals, demonstrate empathy for others, establish positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

Public school leaders will receive 30 hours of training. The recommendations will filter down to classroom teachers, starting with 48 public schools with high rates of suspensions, including 14 in Orleans and Jefferson parish school districts.

During the 2018-19 school year, 54,020 students received out-of-school suspensions, according to state figures. Of the total, 37,893 suspensions involved Black students and 16,127 involved white students, though Black and white students make up roughly the same percentage of the public school student population. In the 2017-18 school year, 56,302 students were suspended: 40,383 Black students and 15,919 white students.

Black students are 42% of the public school population and white students are 44%.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said some of the problem stems from uneven starts in how and what young children learn.

“Kids get depressed and upset in class because they feel they cannot meet certain standards,” Fields said.

The new program is being assisted by Louisiana State University. Judith Rhodes, director of LSU’s Social Research and Evaluation Center, said the training will include a unit in social and emotional learning “through a racial equity lens.”

“We are going to go to the literature and look at case studies in other school systems and how disparate impact has been dealt with successfully,” Rhodes said.

While the school suspension numbers remain high, they have dropped in recent years. But Brumley said: “We have a long way to go.”

He cited a lack of Black male teachers, who make up 5% of the teaching ranks, as one of the challenges.

“If Black boys have access to a Black male teacher between the third and eighth grade, it leads to so many positive outcomes in their life,” Brumley said.

Education officials say the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted classrooms for nearly a year adds another difficult layer to the effort to lessen suspensions.

“When all of the children come back to school, and you have students who have been in an unstructured environment, how are they going to react?” said Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and former superintendent of the Central School District.

“You want structure, you want order in a classroom,” he added. “But some people go overboard. Some people go overboard because they don’t understand where the kids are coming from.”

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