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Racine Unified School District

The Racine Unified School District administration offices, 3109 Mount Pleasant St., Racine.

Journal Times file photo

RACINE — A quarter of black students in the Racine Unified School District received at least one out-of-school suspension during the 2015-16 school year.

During the same time frame, 7.2 percent of Hispanic students and 5 percent of white students were suspended. These three ethnic groups made up the majority of the student population in 2015-16, when 26.4 percent of students were black, 27 percent were Hispanic and 41 percent were white. 

The percentage of black students suspended — or prohibited from going to school for up to five days — in 2015-16 was higher at Racine Unified than at either in the Kenosha Unified district or in Milwaukee Public Schools.

In that year — the most recent year for which data is available from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction — 21 percent of black Kenosha Unified students were suspended and 20 percent of black MPS students were suspended.

The trend for higher suspension rates for black students is prevalent throughout the Racine district — in the elementary schools through the high schools. At the vast majority of district schools, the black suspension rate was higher than for any other racial group. At most schools, it was significantly higher.

It should be noted that the suspension rate for black students statewide was higher than for any other racial group, at 17 percent.

During the 2015-16 school year, black students also made up the vast majority of Racine Unified expulsions, where a students is removed for an extensive period. In that school year, 27 of the 38 students who were expelled were black.

Many factors contribute 

Eric Gallien, Racine Unified’s deputy superintendent who is set to become superintendent in July, said that many factors contribute to these numbers.

When asked why the rate was so high, Gallien said: “That is the million-dollar question.”

Gallien believes that societal issues seeping into the schools and traumatic incidences that happen outside of school — but affect student behavior in the classroom — both contribute to the suspension numbers.

“It’s multi-faceted,” Gallien said. “It’s not one particular issue. It’s a lot of different dynamics.”

Examples of these traumatic instances could be a fire that displaces a family or a sudden death of a loved one.

“Families have challenges around poverty issues, abuse, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, all of those variables,” Gallien said.

The district is working to help students cope with these issues, as well as to ensure teachers are aware of the underlying causes of some student behaviors.

“I think in the past, people didn’t always understand — the community in general didn’t always understand — how that impacts children when they see that and how that can manifest itself in schools, so we are beginning to make sure that our staff are aware of that,” Gallien said.

Hicks: Rate ‘concerning’ 

Beverly Hicks, education chairman for the Racine Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that the rate of suspensions for black students is concerning to her organization because if students aren’t in class, they aren’t learning.

“We know that if you’re in there (at school) there’s learning going on, but if you’re out, we have no control over what’s happening,” Hicks said.

When students are suspended, Hicks said, they might end up home alone. 

“I think a lot of kids are left home unsupervised just because parents have to go out and work,” she said.

Rates highest at middle schools

Racine Unified’s suspension rates for black students were highest in its middle schools. At three of them, nearly half of students were suspended during the 2015-16 school year.

At Gilmore Middle School, 2330 Northwestern Ave., 47.5 percent of black students were suspended in 2015-16. At Jerstad-Agerholm Middle School, 3601 La Salle St., 44.4 percent of black students were suspended; and at McKinley Middle School, 2340 Mohr Ave., 51.6 percent of black students were suspended.

Gallien believes that this is due to developmental changes that take place during middle school compounding on top of outside traumas and other societal factors.

“What’s typical middle school-age behavior is amplified when you factor in all those other variables,” he said.  

Hicks acknowledged that middle school is a difficult time, but said teachers could learn to handle some situations differently to avoid unneeded conflict.

“I think you have to look at the population of teachers that we have in the district, and how much experience they have just working with kids of color, or just blacks because we don’t see the same thing with the Hispanic population,” Hicks said.

Hicks said she knows that teachers are receiving some training, but said not all of them are prepared to work in an urban district. 

Reasons for suspensions

The district recommends or allows student suspension for violent behaviors, habitual disruptions and behavior that endangers other students, Gallien said.

Typically, when one of these incidents takes place, a teacher writes an incident referral that is forwarded to the school administration. This starts the due process procedure, which includes interviewing the student to find out his or her version of events, as well as any witnesses.

From there, school administrators can use a district guidance book to determine what kind of discipline is warranted.

“They are allowed to use their administrative discretion in some areas,” Gallien said.

Hicks said that her organization is most concerned that students of all races receive the same punishment for equal infractions.

“That’s really the No. 1 thing, is making sure there’s equity there when dealing with these problems,” Hicks said.

Administration efforts

The Unified administration is focusing on both students and staff to address the black suspension rate.

“We’re providing more support for our students,” Gallien said. “We’re giving them more tools for how to manage their stress levels, manage their trauma.”

The district has implemented school-based mental health clinics at some of its schools. It also provides targeted support for students who frequently engage in suspendable behavior, working with parents for a team approach.

During its last budget process, the Racine Unified School Board provided funding to expand its Circles of Support program, which aims to curb student behavior issues.  

Staff are undergoing professional training on social and emotional issues, mental health first aid and trauma-informed care to help them better understand student behavior. They're also learning about cultural responsiveness.

One of the district’s emphases is relationship-building between students and staff.

Robert Wittke, president of the Racine Unified School Board, said the board has had its eye on the black suspension rate for years. He said the board’s goal is to ensure the district is providing a safe and welcoming learning environment to all its students.

Hicks acknowledged the steps the district has taken toward making a change and supports those steps, but said that it could always do more.

“So long as we can see them working to improve it, I think that’s what we want to see,” she said.

Hicks said she realizes this is a process that’s going to take time.

“Hopefully, with the new things that they’re implementing we will see where those numbers are beginning to go down,” she said. “I think the most important thing is that the NAACP and RUSD are working together to bring about the change that’s going to be necessary just to make sure kids are not disproportionately being dealt with harshly.”

Community influences

Gallien does not believe that suspensions are contributing to systemic inequality in the black community. In fact, he thinks the opposite is true.

“What’s happening in the community is impacting the school, which is leading to suspensions,” he said.

While Hicks said it would be nice to have large-scale community cooperation to combat this issue, she believes that it’s ultimately Unified’s responsibility to ensure that black students aren’t being unnecessarily kicked out of the classroom.

“Everyone has a role to play, I agree with that,” Hicks said. “But it still comes down to the schools doing all they can to make sure all kids are being successful and part of that is by not suspending them so that they’re able to stay in school and learn.”

With a collaborative approach in mind, the district is working with organizations within the community to get students and families the services and support they need.

“We partner with the Racine Police Department and our other municipalities on trying to have programming in our (Community Oriented Policing) COP houses,” Gallien said. “We’re partnering with the city to provide more recreational opportunities for students so that they can be connected to something and be more actively involved.”

The local branch of the NAACP has been meeting with the Unified superintendent and the superintendent’s cabinet quarterly for about 10 years to discuss various issues, including the black suspension rate. The NAACP recently asked the district to supply it with suspension data on a monthly basis to more closely monitor the situation.

Hicks would like to see the numbers change. 

“Kids are losing ground and we can’t afford to,” she said.

Reporter

Caitlin Sievers covers cops, crime and the west-end communities. She's a lover of cats, dance and Harry Potter. Before moving to the Racine area she worked at small papers in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.