Time Out

Kids of Color Get Punished More Than White Kids. One Portland School Is Changing That.

A couple of simple tweaks (and a lot of conversation) are paying off.

By Zach Dundas August 14, 2018 Published in the September 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Stat after stat. Principal’s office after principal’s office. Across the nation, schools punish students of color more often than their white peers. “Disproportionate discipline” notably affects African American kids. A federal study this year found that black public school students—only 15.5 percent of US students— receive almost 40 percent of suspensions.

“Look at the data for virtually any school,” says Stacy Talus, principal at Reynolds Middle School, which serves outer-east-metro Portland. “There are glaring, pernicious gaps.” At Reynolds, Talus notes, demographic change has formed a diverse student body served by a largely white staff, which many believe exacerbates disciplinary inequities.

“If you’re not familiar with kids’ cultures and ways of self-expression, interpreting behavior can be very difficult,” says Carmen Rubio, executive director of the community group Latino Network.

At Reynolds, change first manifested as data analysis and discussion convened by All Hands Raised, a foundation that works with school districts across Multnomah County. At the table: teachers, administrators, mental health pros, and organizations like Latino Network. “If we can make connections, look at real numbers, and watch change on the ground, we’re not reacting to noise,” says AHR CEO Dan Ryan.

The resulting steps seem deceptively simple. Talus says Reynolds added an experienced African American mentor to its front-office staff. “Now kids come to the office to build relationships,” says the principal, who is white. According to Latino Network’s Ana Muñoz, part of the Reynolds working group, workshops aimed at Latino parents foster direct connections with school staff.

Talus also points to a more subtle tweak: Reynolds shaved a few minutes off other periods to create a 20-minute session at the start of the day. This homeroom-style check-in allows students to get to know an individual teacher outside regular instruction; staff can also tailor a given day’s messages to incidents and issues as they arise.

After a year of effort, Talus points to a noteworthy reduction in discipline for kids of color: African American students, for example, constitute 8 percent of Reynolds’s student body, and accounted for 13 percent of disciplinary referrals in 2017–18. “That’s not where it needs to be yet,” Talus says, “but we were often double that.” The positive momentum has schools elsewhere in the county collaborating to craft their own versions of the reforms. And beyond numbers, Talus says his school’s atmosphere has shifted.

“Our worst days now are better than our best days used to be,” he says.

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