Montclair Schools Suspension Statistics of Students of Color Shock BOE Members; Violence Report Shows Increase in Assaults

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The Montclair Board of Education’s first meeting of 2018 on January 10 featured three presentations, one of which had not been on the original agenda but ended up causing great controversy.

Montclair Board of Education

Interim Schools Superintendent Barbara Pinsak joined with Director of Operations and School Support Services Felice Harrison-Crawford in discussing the school suspension rate.  The numbers – much of the presentation involved numbers – were sobering; out of over 6,700 students in the district, 179 were suspended for infractions ranging from disobedience to violation of rules, and a disproportionate number of suspended students were male, black, and/or in special education classes.

Superintendent Pinsak tried to stress the positive aspects of the report, saying she was in communications with the school principals to get a handle of the situation, and she noted that suspensions had actually decreased in the first four months of the current school year in comparison to the first four months of 2016-17.  She admitted that the district was not where she wanted it to be, but that it was moving in the right direction.  She also focused on new initiatives that could help reduce suspensions, such as the expansion of the Academy at Glenfield Middle School and the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, and she outlined challenges for the district to meet going forward, such as balancing support for staffers and teachers with addressing student needs, continued funding of the Undoing Racism project, and working more closely with parents and families on critical topics.

Board members generally agreed that such initiatives needed to be pursued, but they largely were having none of Superintendent Pinsak’s optimism.  Joseph Kavesh said as much, saying the numbers presented were the most depressing set of numbers he’d seen since the audit only a few weeks earlier, and he added that more money was needed for handling suspensions at a time when finding monies for the overall budget was lean.   Eve Robinson gave an incendiary appraisal of the situation, noting that 11 boys had been suspended in elementary school.  Recalling the earlier success Montclair had had with providing universal pre-kindergarten classes, Robinson said the lack of support for pre-K in recent years was only allowing children to enter school with underdeveloped abilities to control themselves and show empathy or others.  Adding that education for children aged four to eight – especially boys in that age range –should be better, she said it was “way late” in trying to deal with students at the middle-school and high-school level.

Board member Franklin Turner minced no words in spelling out the main problem – racism.  Turner cited examples in his own experience about black boys he’d taught being subject to discriminatory treatment, and he said that systemic bigotry was at the root of so many black male students not getting the attention and the guidance they need.    His comments sparked a long discussion about the effect of racism and how white administrators without any background in the issue should recognize the problem and deal with it.  Board member Anne Mernin echoed the concerns that Robinson expressed, saying they had resources, as well as a new deputy superintendent in charge of equity, and that it was imperative to set goals to reduce suspensions and reach them.

Dr. Harrison-Crawford offered insight into two other topics that night. In discussing the enrollment report, which was required by Trenton for the purpose of computing state aid, she said that the district had prepared for more students enrolling in 2017-18 than it had actually received – 323 new enrollees compared to the 420 projected – but it had met its projections based on gender.   Dr. Harrison-Crawford said the state had set a baseline for minority and “non-minority (white) students to achieve racial balance in the effort to achieve desegregation.  She added that Montclair was striving for a plus or minus variance of 10 percent minority/non-minority for racial balance in each school based on total enrollment, with a similar variation for the kindergarten class.  The district hopes to achieve 100 percent compliance with the target of racial balance within the schools, even though it does meet the state mandate under the desegregation plan. The district’s students are 49 percent Hispanic or non-white, with blacks comprising a quarter of the overall student body.

The vandalism and violence report, also presented by Dr. Harrison-Crawford, showed relatively little vandalism in terms of number of incidents.  Property damage incidents totaled four for 2016-17, up from only one the previous year, but still much lower than 12 incidents for 2011-12. There was one arson incident in 2016-17, involving a fire set in a girls’ bathroom in one school, as well as two thefts.  However, assaults totaled 24 for 2016-17 – down from 28 in 2013-14 but still higher than the sixteen incidents reported in 2014-15. Incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying (HIB) numbered eighteen in 2016-17, the district’s third straight annual increase.  Kavesh envisioned that the harassment reports among female students, spurred by the sexual misconduct scandals of recent months, would likely increase.  Mernin said the growing number of HIB incidents presented an opportunity to observe student behavior and environment to see what is causing such misconduct in order to act.  Overall acts of violence and vandalism totaled 63 for 2016-20017, with 80 incidents in 2013-14 being the highest recorded number in the past eight years.

In public comment, June Raegner said that each student should be treated as a person rather than as a statistic, and she added that more care should be used in following special-education students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Is racism really the problem here why students of color have higher suspension rates and create more disciplinary actions? It’s not. At what point are we going to face reality and stop using this easy, go to rhetoric that blames everything on discrimination and racism and ignores the student’s personal situation and home life as the real issue to address?

    Most education experts and social scientists know it is the Socio-Economic Status of the students that differentiate their behavior and success, not race. However, in our area, obviously race and SES are connected. But focusing on racial discrimination is the wrong path to go down. Sure, there is some discrimination and bias from reduced expectations among largely white, working class teachers and administrators dealing with black students, but it’s mostly the kids themselves and their families that have the issues. They are the ones who need the majority of our focus and concern. Not the attitudes of white teachers. That’s just passing the buck.

    We all know kids living in poverty have much more non-existent and un-involved parents who aren’t really around, or don’t have the skills to help them, and that this creates anger and behavioral problems from the dysfunctions these kids see around them. That they don’t have mentors, tutors and guidance at the same level as wealthier children to get help.

    Combine that with what Eve Robinson says, that we’ve dropped the ball and are no longer providing universal pre-k which is “only allowing children to enter school with underdeveloped abilities to control themselves and show empathy or others”. So now, there are even fewer alternatives and behavioral help for poorer kids of color – those who most need to transcend their poverty situations.

    The fact is African American children from a lower SES backgrounds hear three million less words than middle and upper class peers by the time they are 3. So they are already behind in vocabulary. And then fall behind in reading which makes them feel lost early on. But we have no systematic in home programs to help their care-givers and parents deal with this, or to learn what to do to try and reverse that situation. To help them recover.

    An in home remediation component is something all successful education model programs around the country use when they’ve shown any real impact on the achievement gap. But the money and will are not here in our state to get into that. So we just play at the margins. But discrimination is not the main issue. Sure, improving the attitudes of white teachers is helpful, but it should not be the focus. Franklin Turner is dead wrong to say that “systemic bigotry is at the root of so many black male students not getting the attention and the guidance they need. And further, his miss-directed belief that the effects of racism which are the central issue here in Montclair because white administrators without background in this issue need to recognize the problem and deal with it.

    Focusing on the attitudes of white teachers and administrators can help, but it’s the wrong place to put our primary focus. And until we move away from this clichéd perspective and shift to addressing the underlying socio-economic issues of the kids themselves: their at home life, a need for more homework and tutoring help and addressing family dysfunctions and poverty etc. — nothing is really going to change.

  2. Turner’s comments are reminiscent of those around our country today. Crying foul when people are being held accountable for their actions. Disgusting. When are we going to stop playing the race card and hold ourselves and others responsible for their actions.

  3. Spot on target – “……rhetoric that blames everything on discrimination and racism…..”

    The moment you wrote that blanket statement using the word EVERYTHING, you revealed yourself as a true bigot and I dismissed the rest of your screed. We know where you’re coming from.

  4. First, I’m shocked members of our school leadership are presented with a summary report and they already know the root cause. Either they were prepped and studied the numbers behind the report ahead of time or they are being reckless. I think the latter.

    It may institutional racism. It may be a host of reasons. But, I would jump to defining the problem unless I had more information. The Y/Y comparison of the first 4 months seems to indicate there were 51 suspensions this year, down from 80 (-36%). So, let’s put in a Pre-K! Shaping the problem to fit an agenda, maybe?

    I’m curious how many suspensions were repeat offenders. I wonder why the suspensions we’re not broken out by cause. The presentation dedicates a page to explaining the causes, but then doesn’t connect the numbers.

    It seems like a lot of suspensions. It seems like it would be prudent to get more detail before we go off implementing our solutions.

  5. All those liberal teachers and administrators enforcing systemic racism? Nobody is being disproportionately punished. It is disingenuous to react to these stats by pretending it’s an issue of systemic racism.

  6. jimbo08 and nonfatwithwhip…you get it. ronm you refuse to look at reality. Instead you continue to process views through a deflection rhetorical “racism” paradigm.

    Been there. Done that. We all know there is SOME racism and that it’s an issue. But that’s not the real issue here.

    Franklin Turner sees the problems among those who most need help, but he does not understand how to turn it around. And it appears the newly hired equity Ass’t Superintendent Dr. Johnson, also wants to blame everything on institutional racism, i.e. white teachers/administrators and their perceptions how they see kids of color. But it is not our Montclair teacher’s racist perceptions and bias that disrupt classrooms. It’s not our teachers and administrators lack of cultural understanding why more African American kids from special ed classes are reported with proportionally higher disciplinary incidents.

    Instead of focusing on the source of these kids problems and coming up with specific services and individual help they really need, we continue to dance around talking institutional racism. And of course all the white liberals here get scared and uncomfortable to say anything in opposition for fear of being called a “bigot”. So they just shut up and go along with the self flagellation show.

    The Board’s circular conversation after Franklin Turner spoke is totally off. Unless there is some medical/chemical issue among many of the kids reported, the main source of problems causing disruptive or violent incidents to the point of suspensions is clearly Socio-Economic Status and related poverty. So let’s stop “un-doing Montclair’s racism” and come up with more modalities to help remediate the effects of those kid’s poverty. Develop services to give them better coping skills and try and help them get ahead.

    Early Pre-K for everyone from the start as Eve Robinson suggested — is the best known first step in that direction which can help level the playing field for all.

  7. I would rather pay to voucher out every Pre-K age child in town then let this BoE and school system take on Pre-K. They are institutionally and professionally incapable of handling this.

  8. The black student numbers are way disproportionate consistently, but the number also shows that there was an across the board issue at Buzz Aldrin & Renaissance in the first half of 2017. The BoE might, if they can get past their preconceived notions, want to look there for middle management issues that are not driven by the institutional racism, or gender.

Comments are closed.