SHERIDAN — A recent report by the Wyoming Community Foundation found racial disparities in exclusionary discipline, and Sheridan County schools reflect the broader statewide trends.
The Sept. 6 report found that in-school and out-of-school suspensions negatively affect students’ academic performance and that students of color are suspended at higher rates than white students, who are also suspended at lower rates than would be expected by demographic makeup.
Statewide, disproportionate suspensions were highest among Native and Hispanic students. The report compared the percentage of suspended students that belonged to an ethnic group with the percentage of the enrolled population that the ethnic group represents.
Native American students accounted for 5.6% of suspensions beyond what their percentage of the population would predict. Hispanic students were suspended at a rate 3.9% higher than their share of population. White students accounted for 12.6% fewer suspensions than their share of population.
The 2017 edition of the report found similar rates and discrepancies.
All local data collection and analysis for the report was conducted by the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center at the University of Wyoming.
The report defines exclusionary discipline as any disciplinary measure that removes students from their typical educational setting, such as suspensions and expulsion.
The report cites numerous academic studies that establish that suspensions are associated with having to repeat grades, that students with even one in-school suspension have higher drop-out rates and that out-of-school suspensions are associated with lower academic achievement.
“In the accountability age, if you want to call it that, principals understand the importance of students being on campus,” Big Horn High School principal Al Sparkman said.
The WYCF report divides rule violations that result in exclusionary discipline into the two classes of subjective violations, which rely on teachers and principals to assess the seriousness of the issue and the necessary disciplinary action, and objective violations which carry rule-based automatic penalties, generally for more serious acts like drug or weapon possession.
The report cites a 2017 paper in the journal School Psychology called “The relative contribution of subjective office referrals to racial disproportionality in school discipline” to show that fewer racial disparities arise in cases where students are punished in accordance with objective rule violations than in subjective violations cases.
Since racial disparities only appear in cases where an adult teacher or administrator makes a subjective determination of appropriate punishment then, the report concludes that “This discrepancy is the direct result of implicit bias.”
The report defines implicit biases as “unconscious and unintentional assumptions about a person or group of people based on that person’s or group’s gender, age, race, ethnicity or disability status.”
It stresses, “Even people who are fair and open-minded can hold implicit biases,” citing a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center that found that 75% of American adults demonstrated some type of implicit bias.
To ensure that all students are afforded equal educational opportunities, the WYCF recommends in the report that school districts implement the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports published by the Wyoming Department of Education.
“PBIS is the application of evidence-based strategies and systems to assist schools to increase academic performance, increase safety, decrease problem behavior and establish positive school cultures,” the Wyoming DOE website said.
PBIS relies upon discipline referral data and assessments of a student’s learning and home environment to understand the psychological function of problematic behavior.
Sheridan County School District 1 uses both in-school and out-of-school suspensions.
“In school is used more often than out of school, as we want to be able to work with the student, and that can’t be done if they are not in school,” SCSD1 Superintendent Peter Kilbride wrote in an email.
In the 2017-2018 school year, one of 35 SCSD1 students to receive in-school suspensions and none of the 24 who received out-of-school suspensions was a member of a minority group, according to data provided by the district.
In 2018-2019, five of 60 students with in-school suspensions and 1 of 16 to receive out-of-school suspensions were members of a minority group. There were no expulsions in either year.
The most recent available enrollment data by ethnicity comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which collects demographic and disciplinary data, shows a minority enrollment of 7.8% in SCSD1 in 2015. For the past two years, only 2017-2018 in-school suspension numbers were above this number, at 8.33% (five of 60).
The principal makes discipline determinations on a case-by-case basis, considering factors such as prior office referrals, the safety of others and other circumstances, Kilbride said.
Kilbride said a student using a weapon in a malicious or threatening manner would be automatically suspended but that the district does not generally believe in an automatic policy that doesn’t take into account all relevant circumstances.
Kilbride said that suspensions have generally trended downward in recent years, which he said is due in part to a focus on behavioral education during office referrals.
Regarding PBIS, the district uses a three-tiered pyramid of interventions to support students.
In Sheridan County School District 2 in 2017-2018, minority students accounted for 34 of 250 total in-school suspensions, or 14%, and six of 44 out-of-school suspensions, also 14%, according to the district’s data.
In 2018-2019, minority students accounted for 36 of 226 in-school suspensions, or 16%, and two of 36 out-of-school suspensions, 5.5%.
According to the 2015 Civil Rights Data Collection information, SCSD2 had a minority population of 11.2%. So the percent of minority students receiving in-school suspensions in each year is higher than their percentage in district demographics, though the gap is not so wide as that of the state as a whole.
The numbers of out-of-school suspensions are low overall, and the two years’ percentages are far apart, so these numbers are likely very weak indicators of any bias. There is also the age of the demographic data from 2015.
Similarly, though Sheridan County School District 3 administrators did not provide suspension data, it would be difficult to draw any conclusion from them due to low total enrollment.
According to the SCSD2 student handbook, principals, assistant principals and the superintendent can suspend a student for up to 10 days for continued willful disobedience or open defiance; willful destruction or defacing of school property; any behavior that is clearly detrimental to the education, welfare, safety, or morals of other pupils; and/or abuse of a pupil, or possession, use or transfer of a deadly weapon.
The superintendent must be notified of all suspensions, and each student must be given a verbal or written notice of the reasons for the suspension before it is served, according to the handbook. Students are also entitled to an appeal process.
All board policies are reviewed on a five-year cycle, so relevant disciplinary policies are reviewed at least once every five years, according to SCSD2 Assistant Superintendent for Instruction and Human Resources Scott Stults.
Stults said in an email that the district uses a PBIS approach at all of its schools.
“Just as we teach content, we also teach what appropriate behavior should look like in the classroom, cafeteria, hallways, gymnasium, auditorium, etc.,” Stults said in an email.
Though total enrollment numbers are relatively small, the schools in Sheridan County as a whole appear to reflect the data presented in the Wyoming Community Foundation’s report.