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KC Leaders To Explore Disparities in School Discipline Blacks, Males More Likely To Be Suspended

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6 minute read

Biases, race inequity and gender discrimination in Kansas City schools are some of the alarming patterns set to be explored this morning at Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ School Suspension Summit.

Those topics aren’t often aired in public, but city leaders argue it’s mistake to ignore disparities because they play a big role in absenteeism, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the pigeonholing of children as “bad kids,” even as early as preschool.

The summit was prompted by a 2015 study, which was released by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, that identified Missouri as one of the states with the worst suspension disparities between blacks and whites in grades K thru 12.

Although some question whether the Missouri data is skewed by a few troubled St. Louis school districts, city leaders say that there is a deeper problem that we often overlook. It’s why they sought to further examine the numbers in their own study of schools within Kansas City, Missouri.

The city released these stats in advance of the summit:

  • Black students made up about 40 percent of enrollment but accounted for 74 percent of the disciplinary incidents.

  • There was an average of 45 incidents for every 100 black students in 2016. Black students were five times more likely to experience disciplinary classroom removal than their white counterparts.

  • In every racial group boys were more likely to be removed from the classroom than girls.

*Several schools use the category “other” instead of classifying detailed discipline data.

In some cases more than 80 percent of incidents were classified as “other” instead of accounting for students being suspended for such things as violent acts, drugs or alcohol. It concerns city officials in part because you can’t identify solutions if you don’t understand the root cause.

Number Crunching

The Kansas City health department, which used its advanced technical staff to compile the numbers, used data collected the last two years by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It analyzed data from 40,090 students enrolled in 2016.

The dataset includes any public school that educates elementary grade students in preschool thru eighth-grade. The city looked at how many incidents there are per 100 enrolled students to determine the incident rate. Between 2015 and 2016, the rate of incidents of disciplinary classroom removal increased from 17.12 to 23.99. That is an increase of 40 percent, according to the health department.

The mayor’s office worked with Turn the Page KC, a non-profit created by James to address reading proficiency and chronic absenteeism, along with the health department.

The trends discerned from the data are evident across the board, said Sarah Martin-Anderson, manager of community engagement policy and accountability for the health department.

“Time and again we were seeing the same thing,” she said. “And not just in schools in the heart of the city. We’re seeing it in schools north of the river. We’re seeing it in more affluent schools, and we’re seeing it in charter schools.”

There were surprising disparities among schools with similar demographics, she said. City officials declined to release school-specific data in advance of the summit but pointed to some clear trouble spots.

“When you look at schools that are predominantly white children, the kids of color in those schools are going to be more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts,” Martin-Anderson said. “Then we see this interesting pattern by charter schools versus public schools. We see patterns about in-school suspension versus out-of-school suspension.”

In some cases, public schools have the infrastructure to handle in-school suspensions while smaller schools, including some charters, might not be equipped to house and monitor in-school suspension, which experts generally regard as better for children and families.

The summit is focusing on preschool to third grade because of a citywide goal to have all children reading on grade level by third grade.

The summit is coinciding with the beginning of the school year in order to get rolling on solutions, said Mike English, executive director at Turn the Page KC. School leaders, who play critical roles in shaping change, are invited to attend with key staff members.

Preconceived Notions

The summit will explore implicit bias or the idea that many people are unconsciously affected by stereotypes. It will also examine several other discipline models, including restorative justice, that back away from traditional suspension punishment in favor of a more mediated approach.

Those more mediated approaches are being implemented within Kansas City Public Schools, Superintendent Mark Bedell said. Every executive in the district was included in this years’ training to ensure the the district is able to be a united front.

“Restorative justice allows for us now to take a very research-based process in talking with our kids, getting them to understand what they did and helping them correct their behaviors, but doing it in a really non-confrontational way, which also includes conflict resolution,” Bedell said.

The city will also connect schools with grants for training on effective discipline models. But it will also go deeper. The health department will then help schools strategically track data to see if the process worked.

“We’re taking a supportive approach and not a punitive approach,” said Julie Holland, the mayor’s education adviser.

That can’t be done without acknowledging implicit bias, Holland said. It’s why the summit will explore explicit versus implicit bias in order to work on solutions.

Labelling a child as troublemaker early on can have lasting consequences. “You might start believing what other people think,” Holland said.

Roughly 90 percent of the KCPS student population are students of color; in contrast, about two-thirds of teachers are white. Part of the new KCPS strategic plan leans heavily on cultural relevancy training for teachers.

“When we think about the over-identification of African American males being suspended or placed in special education, a lot of it is based on the way we believe kids should show up — not taking into account there’s a lot of trauma,” he said. “There are mental health variables that we need to take into account.”

It’s time, Holland said, that city and school district leaders scoot their chairs up and start exploring why young children are missing 18 days or more of school and being suspended multiple times in a school year.

City officials point out that we often think about discipline interventions for middle and high school students when the so-called school-to-prison pipeline begins. But the process actually begins much earlier, experts say, as children who are repeatedly disciplined start to believe they are bad. Other students pick up on it too and the child has quickly earned a label that can be impossible to shake.

“It also creates a situation where our kids now are now being placed on a track where they aren’t able to flourish academically because we just weren’t able to get to the root cause of why they weren’t performing,” Bedell said. “I think there are things we can do on the front end to better support our teachers, better support our students and most importantly to better support our community.”

Tough To Handle

The massive number crunching project has gotten the attention of city leaders. At times the enormity of it all has taken a toll. Statisticians were especially alarmed to learn that preschool students were more likely than other elementary grade to be sent home for discipline problems.

“To the point where you have statisticians crunching these numbers and crying at their desks because they’re imagining these preschoolers being stuck at home away from their classmates and being labeled from a very young age,” she said.

The department accounted for several variables and factors but found the same results. National data backs up the local work as well.

National data shows that a black child is three to four times more likely to get suspended for the same infraction as a white counterpart at the same school, Martin-Anderson said.

She points out that if she saw these types of figures for a disease outcome, then she would be sounding an alarm.

“We send out alert emails to the entire city for Zika. We don’t send out alert emails to parents saying the school your kid is attending – if he is a black boy – he is six to seven times more likely to get suspended,” she said. “We don’t talk about that. This is our time to talk about it.”

City officials know the data will no doubt embarrass some school leaders but it’s a story that parents deserve to hear. Consider, Martin-Anderson points out, that families often have few if any choice in where their children attend school.

“This is a very emotional, very charged topic. But what I want school leaders to know especially is that we are in their corner. This isn’t a gotcha moment. This isn’t about putting anyone’s dirty laundry out there. This is about working together and sharing resources because we know there are some schools who are doing it really well. We want to give them an opportunity to share their story at the summit as well.”

— Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.

— Flatland Digital Coordinator Kelly Cordingley contributed to this report.

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