Malverne School District addresses racial disparities

Statewide report shows black students suspended at higher rates than white peers


The New York Equity Coalition, an organization of New York educational advocacy groups, released a report last month detailing the racial disparities in suspension rates between students of color and their white peers throughout the state’s education system.

The report, “Stolen Time: New York State’s Suspension Crisis,” found that black students were more than six times as likely to be suspended as white students, and students who had been suspended were more likely to gain a reputation as “troubled” and fall behind in school.

“New York’s education system imposes suspensions on black students at unacceptable rates,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-New York.

“It is up to the state leaders to enact policies to stop these practices, and we hope this report adds to the urgency behind this important equity issue,” the report read.

The Malverne School District has spent the past decade working to develop a better relationship between staff and students. School officials began the initiative during the 2007-08 school year, when records showed that students were suspended more than 500 times at Malverne High School. The school had an enrollment of 550 students. Superintendent Dr. James Hunderfund said that the school reduced the number of suspensions to three during the 2017-18 school year.

“My feeling is, that is a direct indicator that the culture has evolved and changed to one that is successful in the academic domain,” Hunderfund said. “We also have to give families credit for supporting the school system for helping to build this unique culture.”

The inequity identified in the report, and the need to reduce the disparity between historically marginalized student groups and white students, is what led the Sewanhaka Central High School District to open its new Academic Learning Center at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

The ALC, in Sewanhaka’s Career and Technical Education Building, serves students who are suspended from school. SCHSD Assistant Superintendent Kathleen Sottile explained that students who were suspended in the past would normally spend their time at home or out in the streets, but they now attend a full day of classes, complete with counseling and social work services when necessary.

“The students work all day long, and at the end of it, they tell us that they don’t want to go back,” Sottile said of the rigor of studying at the center. “This is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.”

Sewanhaka Superintendent Ralph Ferrie said he introduced the idea of the ALC to the district after attending an educational seminar over the summer last year. He met with superintendents and education leaders from across the country who were also looking for solutions to shrink the racial disparity in their own schools. Ferrie found that districts with similar demographics to Sewanhaka’s, which is a minority-majority district, opened in-school suspension centers to develop a suspension system that moved away from punishment and out-of-school time.

The “Stolen Time” report said suspension centers are a step in the right direction. The report revealed that out-of-school suspensions, when carried out frequently, represented a “step in the school-to-prison pipeline.” School climate was characterized by resentment and punishment as opposed to a supportive educational environment. Out-of-school suspensions can also perpetuate mistrust between black students and educators, because teachers begin to discipline and suspend black students more readily because they are seen as troublemakers. This, in turn, feeds into implicit biases that teachers might have.

The report demonstrated evidence of this when it found that teachers only suspended white students for serious offenses, such as smoking or vandalism, but black students for acts such as “loitering” and making “excessive noise.”

“This is a moment not to point blame or become defensive, but to recognize the disparities and how current regulated practices are manifesting to impact the education and growth of our children,” Ramon Peguero, chief executive officer of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families and New York Equity Coalition member, said. “Every child deserves to be embraced and supported in their education, not pushed out from it.”

Sottile said that while the ALC is still in its infancy, the data that was collected over the first semester showed that the district’s instructional days had increased, with suspended students no longer missing classes. The district plans to review a yearlong analysis of the ALC to find its strengths and weaknesses. Last year, the district found that the disparity between its students of color and white students dropped by 10 percent, and they hope the ALC will help continue that drop.

“We’re narrowing the suspension numbers, and hopefully, the number continues to decrease the recidivism and gets students to make better decisions,” Ferrie said.