suspensions
Board of Education Vice President Franklin Turner, center, speaks during the Wednesday, Jan. 10, BOE meeting. Also pictured are Board President Laura Hertzog, left, and board member Jessica de Koninck. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

The Montclair schools’ suspension report and the apparent likelihood of students of color being more likely than their peers to be suspended were the focus of the Jan. 10 board of education meeting.

The issue is not a new one in the Montclair schools; it was mentioned in a districtwide study on the achievement gap in 2015.

The data in the suspension report suggested that students of color and special needs students were disproportionately more likely to be suspended.

“My biggest concern is the disproportionate number of African-Americans, especially African-American males, who are suspended for non-violent offenses, from Montclair High School on down to the elementary schools,” board member Joe Kavesh, who is also a member of the Civil Rights Commission, said on Monday.

In 2015, the district conducted a study of the achievement gap among different demographic groups in Montclair’s schools.

“The district data show that the trend in disproportionate suspensions by race begins early,” the report on the gap says.

The report said that between 2009 and 2013, black and African-American boys made up half of all suspensions in elementary school: 79 suspensions out of the total of 164. It was also found that black and African-American girls were being suspended more than white boys.

The report added that even though data indicated that suspensions had been on the decline as of the 2012-13 school year, there was still an issue with students of color being more likely to be suspended.

“Over all, the quantitative and qualitative findings show that Montclair school students have vastly different experiences in our classrooms based on race, a gap that begins as early as third grade, a gap that has persisted for decades,” the report says. “We have desegregated our schools. We have not integrated our outcomes.”

The report made several recommendations, including professional development for teachers, community outreach and the hiring of an assistant superintendent for equity.

“So this issue has been raised before,” Kavesh said. “I personally see no value in out-of-school suspensions.”

Christa Rapoport is the new chair of the Civil Rights Commission.

On Monday, Rapoport said she wanted to know more about the factors that led to the suspensions, not just the numbers.

As an example, she pointed to data in the suspensions report that said there had been 11 suspensions among elementary school students. “My question, was that 11 people, 11 kids, or was that nine kids?” she asked, referring to whether a child had been suspended more than once during the school year.

She said she also wanted to know more about the events that led up to the suspension, and if punishments were being meted out fairly, as well as if there were any home life concerns, social issues or other factors that may have contributed. “You looked at this, X and Y, but I’d like to see P and Q added to this,” Rapoport said. She added: “What’s the issue? There has to be an underlying issue.”

Last year, the commission met with the district and outlined a series of metrics they wanted addressed. These included dyslexia screening and support; ensuring equal access to math classes at the three middle schools; the status of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, known as DACA, and the district’s policy not to ask about immigration status; and role-playing in the high schools about what to do if stopped by a police officer.

“We have a robust relationship with Central Office,” Rapoport said.

Kavesh said that the data in both reports meant that the district needed to have a serious discussion about suspension rates. “While I believe that some violent offenses warrant suspension, there has to be an open and honest dialogue about the root causes and an action plan, and not just pie charts,” Kavesh said.

“It’s an issue that’s out there and has been out there for a long, long time,” Kavesh said. “Again, we need to get to the root causes.”