Milwaukee Public Schools has entered into an agreement with U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to resolve a complaint that it discriminated against black students in suspensions and other disciplinary actions.
Under the terms of the agreement, MPS must, among other things, improve its monitoring and data collection, better train staff, update its disciplinary policies, and develop early identification and intervention strategies for students at risk for behavioral problems.
Superintendent Darienne Driver said Tuesday that she is confident MPS can reduce the racial disparities in discipline in the district, which has had among the highest suspension rates in the country in recent years.
“We have to. It’s not optional,” Driver said after Tuesday’s meeting of the school board’s Committee on Student Achievement and School Innovation, where she briefed members on the agreement.
“A number of initiatives we have in place are intended to address this,” she said. “It’s everything from the office of black and Latino male achievement to mindfulness … and the work we’ve been doing on implicit bias and building relationships. it all speaks to that.”
Research suggests that out of school suspension and expulsion rates contribute to the gaping achievement gaps between black and white students in Milwaukee and across the country.
While MPS has dramatically reduced overall suspensions over the last decade, the racial disparities have persisted. In the 2015-’16 school year, black students made up 53.4% of MPS’ student body but 80% of its suspensions and 87% of its expulsions, according to the latest data available at the state Department of Public Instruction.
Those disparities have been widely reported over the years. But Tuesday’s meeting appears to be the first time the administration has publicly acknowledged the existence of the nearly 3-year-old federal investigation.
At least two board members said before the meeting that they could not recall ever being told of the probe. Others, including the committee’s chair, Carol Voss, and vice chair Larry Miller, did not return telephone calls seeking information.
“I was not aware of it,” said Michael Bonds, who was president of the board when the district was first notified in the summer of 2014.
Driver said she learned of the probe during the transition between then-Superintendent Gregory Thornton and her.
The investigation appears to have been initiated by a complaint. However, efforts to obtain copies of the district’s documents since Friday, when it first appeared on the committee agenda, have not been successful. Driver said those would be made available Wednesday.
The investigation came in the wake of a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education, which found that MPS and other districts across the country suspended black students at considerably higher rates than their white peers.
According to that report, African-American students in MPS represented 56% of its enrollment in 2011-’12, but 85% of students who were given multiple out-of-school suspensions. Conversely, it said, white students represented 14% of MPS’ enrollment but only 5% of those with multiple suspensions.
A 2015 report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that MPS had the highest rate of suspension of black students in grades K-8 among districts with large numbers of elementary school students. Wisconsin had the highest rate of suspensions for black high schoolers, it said. MPS posted an average high school suspension rate of 33%, more than three times the national average.
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