WILKES-BARRE — Ronald Shivers spoke softly but leveled a serious claim during the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meeting Monday: Too often, he said, administrators opt for suspension when a student acts up, and the punishment is disproportionately meted out to minority youth.
It’s a claim that facts proved correct when The Times Leader analyzed state School Safety Reports in 2006: Blacks were twice as likely to be offenders than whites in the data. Percentage-wise, blacks made up 14 percent of total enrollment but 28 percent of total offenders, while whites were 76 percent of enrollment but made up 67 percent of offenders.
And it’s a claim that, statistically, holds up today. According to 2012-13 state data — the latest available — blacks made up 18.6 percent of total enrollment in the district, yet comprised 50.5 percent of total offenders listed in the annual School Safety report. By comparison, whites made up almost 55 percent of the enrollment but only 22.3 percent of offenders.
It’s not a situation distinct to Wilkes-Barre Area. The Times Leader data review in 2006 was prompted by an Indiana University study that found minority students had been disproportionately represented in school discipline statistics for at least three decades. The 2006 review of local data showed that, in Luzerne County, the same held true in any district with a large percentage of minority students.
Shivers did not chastise the board. A regular figure at meetings in recent months, he speaks softly on issues of race and encourages the board to work toward equity, not simply for his own family, “but for all the children in the district.” Suspensions hurt students because they are missing school, Shivers said.
Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak said the district is looking at starting in-school suspensions as well as other options to keep students in classrooms. He cited the district’s anti-truancy efforts, saying Wilkes-Barre Area has become a model other districts are studying. And Prevuznak said the district is partnering with Children’s Service Center to provide anger-management training for students when needed.
Board Member Dino Gallela, a former high school principal in the district, said suspensions were always a last resort used only when a student’s behavior repeatedly disrupted class after other discipline actions had failed.
“We have a responsibility to teach all students,” Gallela said.
Shivers argued the problem is often not the student’s behavior, but lack of understanding on the part of teachers and administrators. Minority students may have different backgrounds and upbringing, and may respond differently to situations. He said teachers and administrators need more training to handle a diverse enrollment.
It’s an argument made in the Indiana University report, which found that minority students and whites were disciplined pretty much equally for major offenses, but the disproportionate discipline occurred with minor offenses, such as insubordination.
The author suggested teachers “may be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable with the more active and physical style of communication that characterizes African American adolescents; the impassioned and emotive manner popular among young African American’s may be interpreted as combative or argumentative by unfamiliar listeners.”
Prevuznak noted the district is trying to address that issue as well, by looking for ways to recruit more minority teachers. The district has come under fire for years from local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader Ron Felton.
While the district’s minority enrollment has expanded steadily for years — blacks and Latinos combined to make 41.6 percent of total enrollment in 2012-13 — the teaching staff remains overwhelmingly white.
Prevuznak said the district has invited area colleges to a “summit” to find ways “to attract teachers of different color.”