School suspension rates for black students decreased in Fayette, lifting a federal sanction

For the first time in seven years , Fayette County Public Schools has not been flagged by the federal government for its disproportionate rates of suspension for black students, according to district officials.

Fayette County Public Schools will not have to set aside 15 percent of its federal special education funding to address disparities between students of different races. Six times since the 2011-12 school year, the sanction was triggered by the disproportionate suspension of black students, said district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall.

U.S. Department of Education officials did not immediately comment.

Three years into a five-year plan to reduce suspension rates among all students in Fayette schools and eliminate the disproportionate discipline of black students, Deffendall said fewer students are being suspended, students are missing fewer days of instruction because of suspension, and the disproportionate suspension of black students is decreasing.

While student enrollment has increased, compared to three years ago, students have missed 464 fewer days of school because of suspension in 2018-19, she said.

During the 2016-17 school year, roughly 1.5 percent of elementary students were suspended one or more times. As of April 30, only 0.95 percent of elementary students have been suspended one or more times.

In 2016-17, black students were 4.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. This year, that trended down with the disparity falling to 2.6 percent, said district Safe Schools Office Coordinator Deedeh Massey. Middle and high school suspension rates for black students also trended down, she said, while the rates were slightly higher for white and Asian students in Lexington high schools.

Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk said the data means that the district is headed in the right direction.

“There is no quick fix for these long-standing disparities,” Caulk said. “Our district is committed to making the systemic changes that strike at the root causes of inequities. If students aren’t in school, they miss valuable learning. We have been, and continue to, work diligently in our efforts to ensure equitable discipline practices in all of our schools.”

Adrian Wallace, vice-president for both the Lexington and Kentucky NAACP, said Thursday that he thought Fayette County was on the right track, and he praised Caulk’s efforts to turn schools around but “until we totally eliminate suspensions then we are never finished with the work.”

Wallace said that once children are removed from the classroom to suspension or detention “they become exponentially more likely to become incarcerated both as youth and adults.”

Wallace said its not just an issue for schools. He said city and state government need to also work to build strong communities to give students more support.

“We won’t be satisfied until no child has to be removed for discipline issues,” Wallace said.

Since the 2016-17 school year, the district has required all schools to implement a system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports which focuses on equitable practices, clear behavior expectations and environments conducive to quality teaching and learning in addition to data analysis. Schools are additionally using an approach to resolving conflicts between individuals called ‘‘restorative practices,” said Massey. Caulk said he would ask for two more positive behavior intervention and support coaches to work with high school and middle schools.

Students are receiving other consequences in lieu of removal from class and new attendance policies allow students to make up work missed during unexcused absences.

“Suspension is missed instruction,” said Massey.

This academic year, 30 additional mental health professionals have been hired to provide increased services for students, bringing the ratio of students to mental health professionals down to 350 to 1. Next year, the district will move that to 300 to 1, with a goal of reaching 250 to 1. The district has also provided teacher training in areas including classroom management, understanding behavior, bias and culturally responsive teaching and learning.