EntertainmentLocal A&EMatt Peiken


Do Tri-State schools discipline based on bad behavior or racial bias?

Posted at 3:20 AM, Sep 07, 2014
and last updated 2018-04-13 14:30:02-04

COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio ­– Kiesha Honaker can't get the image out of her mind: Her son, Keylan, face down on the floor of his classroom, his hands cuffed behind his back.

The school was Taylor Elementary in Northwest Local School District. Keylan was in first grade. His offense, according to his mom: Refusing to give a pair of scissors to his teacher.

"The way they had him in handcuffs and treating him like he's a criminal – you don't do a first grader like that,"  said Honaker, whose father saw Keylan handcuffed that day more than two years ago when he went to pick up the boy. "I couldn't do anything but say, 'Keylan, I'm sorry.'"

School officials declined to discuss the specifics of Keylan's case because federal student privacy laws prevent the public release, discussion or review of such information. A spokeswoman gave WCPO this statement:

"Since this case deals with a specific student discipline situation, we are not permitted to discuss the details.  We can tell you that this incident was fully investigated including an on-site visit from the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.  As a result of this investigation, the allegation was withdrawn and the OCR closed this investigation." --- Pauletta Crowley, Northwest Local School District

Honaker said she knew nothing about a specific investigation or about any allegation being withdrawn.

Lawyers for Legal Aid of Southwest Ohio say Keylan is one of scores of black students across Greater Cincinnati caught up in what has become known as a school-to-prison pipeline. In school districts across the country, black and Hispanic students are far more likely than their white classmates to face stringent discipline for what advocates view as minor infractions. Minority students, with the exception of Asians, also are more likely to be removed from schools through suspensions and expulsions or referrals to juvenile court.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that black students are about 3.5 times as likely to be suspended as white students.  

"It's the civil rights issue of today," said Stephanie Moes, an attorney with Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio.

And it's an issue that should concern everyone, said Sarah Biehl, policy director for Columbus-based Children's Defense Fund – Ohio.

"Look, it's not like these children disappear into thin air when we push them out of school," Biehl said. "They are still in our communities. And if we don't engage them in school and make sure they're in school when at all possible, they're going to be out in our communities without anything to do. That makes them much more likely to be the victims of – or perpetrators of – crime."

A WCPO analysis of 2012-2013 state discipline data for schools in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky showed black students were:

  • Punished with disciplinary actions at more than twice the rate of any other group of students.
  • Given out-of-school suspensions at more than 1.5 times the rate of their white classmates. 
  • Given out-of-school suspensions at four times the rate of students who were identified as Hispanic.

The analysis was compiled using data from 2012-2013 Ohio and Kentucky school report cards, which is used to compile the U.S. Office Of Civil Rights’ School District Profile Reports.Data include student expulsions, suspensions, corporal punishment incidents and police referrals by race, for schools and districts in Boone, Campbell, Gallatin, Grant and Kenton counties in Kentucky, and Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties in Ohio. 

The WCPO analysis covered 227 public schools in the Tri-State with black enrollment and compared the rate of discipline within each racial group per 100 students of that same racial group within each school. (Full methodology below)

Mount Healthy High School, for example, disciplined black students at a rate five times that of white students during the 2012-13 school year, according to the Ohio Department of Education data, including 24 expulsions of black students compared to none for whites. The district also had 331 out-of-school suspensions among 644 black students compared to 17 among 157 white students. The data can reflect multiple suspensions for individual students.

Mount Healthy City Schools Superintendent Lori Handler declined interview requests, stating in an email, "I have deep professional and personal concerns about a story labeling schools as a 'pipeline to prison.'  We work very hard to make sure we have a safe and civil environment and offer positive behavior supports for our students."

You can search by school to view disciplinary actions broken down by race in each school below.  

View the interactive map and data.


Some of the most striking disparities were in larger suburban school districts such as Northwest Local School District, where every school in the district had discipline rates for black students that were at least three times higher than white students.

On Sept. 2, parents of four Colerain High School students filed a federal lawsuit against Northwest Local School District and several officers of the Colerain Township Police Department, arguing the school district violated their sons' constitutional rights by expelling them for their involvement in making rap music videos off school grounds.

Parents and lawyers at a Sept. 2 news conference.

Legal Aid of Southwest Ohio also filed a separate administrative complaint in 2012 against the school district with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. That complaint alleged that black students and students with disabilities had been disproportionately disciplined and "denied their rights to an education" because of the district's "selective and over broad application of its disciplinary rules." Keylan's case is part of the Office of Civil Rights complaint.

A U.S. Department of Education spokesman confirmed the office is investigating two cases at Northwest Local related to "alleged discrimination on the basis of race and disability" but could not say when the office expects its investigations to be completed.

Northwest Local School District Superintendent Andrew Jackson declined a request to be interviewed for this story because of the federal lawsuit.

John Concannon

The school district's lawyer, John Concannon of Downtown-based Freking & Betz LLC, said the district hasn't done anything wrong – either with the students involved in the federal lawsuit or with the district's discipline practices generally.

"We applied the code of conduct. It didn't matter what race students were," he said. "We don't have quotas on discipline."

Bias Or Behavior Problems?

The idea of having a quota on discipline is exactly the way some skeptics view the whole school-to-prison pipeline debate.

The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in January released a school discipline guidance package, in part to try to address what a federal news release termed "unfair disciplinary practices."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder discussed the issue in a speech to the American Bar Association in 2013, saying rigid discipline policies "transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system."

"A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal's office and not a police precinct."  -- Attorney General Eric Holder.

But critics have argued that school discipline should be based on conduct and need not reflect the population of each school.

"What often drives the public discussion on this is that a disproportionate number of students of this or that race are being disciplined or arrested or whatever. And the implication is that if you have racial disproportions, therefore there must be racial discrimination," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank focused on issues of race. "I don't buy that."

Clegg pointed to research done by John Wright, a University of Cincinnati criminology professor, which concluded that a history of misbehavior – not bias – explains the racial gap in school suspensions.

"Black kids enter school with a host of behavioral problems that a majority of white kids don't, and that continues over time," Wright told WCPO. "Teachers often react to defiance – all teachers. They have to keep order in the classroom."

But others who have studied the issue say that's where school discipline can become fuzzy and subjective.

"There is virtually no support in the research literature for the idea that disparities in school discipline are caused by racial/ethnic differences in behavior," according to aresearch paper published by The Equity Project at Indiana University. "Studies comparing the severity of behavior by race have found no evidence that students of color in the same schools or districts engage in more severe behavior that would warrant higher rates of suspension or expulsion."

Russell Skiba, an IU professor in counseling and educational psychology and director of the Equity Project, has found that white students tend to be referred to the principal's office for concrete offenses such as vandalism, profane language and smoking. Black students were often referred for more subjective reasons such as loitering, disrespect and excessive noise.

A photo from a Colerain High student's rap video

Poverty and disrupted home life are factors that can lead to misbehavior, but they cannot explain the disproportionate number of black students being suspended or expelled, he said.

"Poverty doesn’t account for racial disparities. Race is much more predictive," Skiba said. 

Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Montgomery, Ala., agreed.

"I've had clients long-term suspended for disrespect because they said 'YOLO' to the teacher or long-term suspended for dress code violations," she said.

Here in Greater Cincinnati, a former, black Northwest Local School District middle school student was referred to juvenile court three times over the course of two school years, his mother told WCPO.

In one instance, she said, he had to go to court after being punched in the face by a white student at his school. The young man didn't fight back – he went to the principal's office to report the incident, his mom said. But when no administrator was available to help him, he got frustrated and threw a chair at the office door. He ended up in handcuffs and referred to juvenile court, his mother said. That threat of juvenile court always loomed, she added.

"That was the first thing he said to me, 'Why did I get arrested, but the other kid punched me?'" the young man's mother told WCPO. "I said, 'I can't answer.'"

His mother has moved to another school district, where her son is doing better. She doesn't want her name or her son's name used for fear that it could cause him problems in his new school, she said.

The young man still has behavior problems that his mother believes are related to his ADHD diagnosis. But he hasn't been suspended from school or referred to court since leaving Northwest Local School District, she said.

"That's not something you want your child to get used to," the mother said of juvenile court. "Unless they've gone and passed the bar, you don't want them to get used to going to court."

The same federal privacy laws that prohibit school officials from discussing specific student cases also restrict members of the media —or any member of the public —from reviewing any discipline case. 

Early Lessons In Criminal Justice

Such early exposure to the juvenile justice system makes children more likely to become adult offenders, said Carter Stewart, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.

Carter M. Stewart

Stewart has some personal experience with the issue. When he was a second-year law student at Harvard University, Stewart took part in a juvenile justice class where he was assigned to represent a 13-year-old girl with a record of assault. For her first assault charge, she had kicked someone. For the second, she had thrown paint on a teacher. For the third, she had kicked a teacher.

"This resulted in a criminal proceeding," he said. It left Stewart wondering whether the girl's misbehavior would have been addressed more effectively in the principal's office than in a courtroom.

"I want kids to grow up respecting police officers and the justice system and having faith that they'll be treated fairly," Stewart told WCPO.

Greater Cincinnati's most urban districts have been working for some time to address misbehavior while keeping students in school.

"Nine years ago, we decided that we were not going to suspend kids to the streets," said Cincinnati Public Schools Assistant Superintendent William Myles. "We’re still held accountable for those kids educationally, and they’re not going to learn being at home."

Instead, Cincinnati students who are caught engaging in serious violations such as fighting and repeated instances of disrupting their classrooms can be placed in the district's Alternative to Suspension program at Spencer Education Center, where they continue to do classwork.

"While they’re there, we'll talk about choices, what kinds of things could they have done to prevent them from getting there. That has been something that we’ve done for some time," Myles said.

Newport Independent Schools, with an enrollment of about 800 middle and high school students, doesn't have the scale to justify running a separate building for students in trouble. But it sectioned off a portion of its school buildings to serve that function.

"Suspension is the last thing I like to see used as an administrator," said Mike Wills, Newport's assistant superintendent. "You're actually giving (offenders) what they want in some cases. That to me is the least favorite punishment to administer."

Instead, Newport often disciplines a student with an hour detention after school. If misbehavior continues, punishment can escalate to Friday School – three hours detention after classmates have begun their weekends.

Finally, students can be placed in alternative classrooms within their school buildings that are separated from others, with different start and end times and a different entrance.

Regarding racial disparity in punishment, Wills said, "I think most administrators are very aware of that. We have minority teachers and administrators in our buildings. Discipline should be proportionate."

Kentucky Department of Education data show that black students were disciplined more than twice as often as white counterparts at Newport High School and at higher rate the district's other schools.

"We're not pleased totally yet, but we feel like we're seeing the right things happening," Wills said. "We're seeing disciplinary referrals going down and attendance rates going up."

Transformational Learning Center (TLC) is a Covington school geared toward providing alternative education for troubled students. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

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Covington Independent Schools Superintendent Alvin Garrison brought lessons from his own childhood with him to his district. Garrison excelled within Jefferson County Public Schools but was initially placed in the lowest track when his mother transferred him to Elizabethtown Independent School District. His mother insisted he be challenged in a higher track, and he battled to succeed with those higher expectations.

"I truly believe to this day, if I remained in that low track, I would not be here today. Once you were in that low track, you stayed in the low track and you became a low tracker in society," he said.

Instead, he tries to raise expectations for all students in Covington. Those who falter can be transferred to the district's Transformational Learning Center, where every class is small and led by a teacher and an aide.

"Covington does more than any district I've seen to work with students. They bend over backwards to keep kids in school," said Tony Perkins, principal of the district's Transformational Learning Center. He spent 25 years as a history teacher, coach and administrator in Hardin County Schools in Kentucky.

Perkins said establishing personal connections with parents and students is the key to getting students back on track.

"Very seldom will you have a kid who you can't get through one way or the other. You still go every route you can. If that doesn't work then you do what you have to do (with out-of-school suspensions). But that should be your last resort," he said.

Tony Perkins, left, is principal of the Transformational Learning Center (TLC), a Covington school geared toward providing alternative education for troubled students. Anton Dennis, 17, right, is one of the students heading back to Holmes High School after completing TLC's program. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

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Pay Now, Pay Later

Programs such as those operated by Cincinnati, Covington and Newport are expensive. But advocates for keeping kids in school argue that they are far less expensive than the alternative.


  • In Ohio, it costs at least twice as much to incarcerate a person as it does to educate someone. The Vera Institute of Justice report, The Price of Prisons, estimated that it cost taxpayers about $25,814 to house each prison inmate in 2011. The Ohio Department of Education says it cost an average of $10,478 to educate a child during the 2012-1013 school year.
  • In Kentucky, the prison cell-schoolroom cost gap is a closer: $14,603 to incarcerate someone versus about $10,174 to educate a child.
  • And the Sentencing Project's national survey of prison inmates who got life sentences for crimes as juveniles showed that 84.4 percent of them had been suspended or expelled from school at some point. Fewer than half the inmates – 46.6 percent – were actually attending school when they were arrested for their crimes.

"The cost of educating students is far less than maintaining juveniles in detention centers or adults in prisons," IU's Skiba said.

That doesn't mean children with serious behavior problems should not be disciplined, said Biehl of the Children's Defense Fund – Ohio.

"Certainly arrest people who commit serious violent crimes," she said. "But let's not arrest kids for throwing toilet paper in a hallway or talking back to a teacher."

Even Wright, the UC professor who has misgivings about the whole school-to-prison pipeline debate, called zero tolerance policies – which dole out big punishments for minor offenses – "simply asinine."

"It is incumbent on schools to be fair, to be judicious and to use discipline that works," Wright said.

Addressing Discipline and Disparities

Two bills are pending in the Ohio General Assembly that would address school discipline issues.

Senate Bill 167 would require local school districts and boards of education to eliminate zero tolerance policies. Instead, school boards would be required to adopt policies that allow the consideration of many factors before students are suspended or expelled and establish alternative strategies to address discipline and behavior problems.

Organizations such as Children's Defense Fund – Ohio and the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio have testified in support of that bill.

The other measure is House Bill 334. It would allow school district superintendents to expel a student for a maximum of 180 days. (The current maximum is 80, Biehl said.) The legislation also would allow superintendents to extend an expulsion for another 90 days if they believe it's warranted.

The House passed that measure, but Biehl and others with concerns about discipline disparities are opposed to it.

Biehl said she doesn't expect either bill to become law before lawmakers' legislative session ends in December. But she does expect some kind of school discipline reform at the state level in the next year or two.

Miami University Puts Education Students in Urban Core

Efforts already are under way to address the long-term problem of white, middle-class teachers and administrators who might unwittingly discipline minority students at higher rates because they lack an understanding of the different challenges some minority students face.

Tammy Schwartz, left, and Anna Hartman

Miami University's Urban Teaching Cohortplaces education majors in Over-the-Rhine to live there for a semester and teach at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy, a Cincinnati Public School that primarily serves minority and low-income students in preschool through sixth grade.

"We are building a community that is allowing us to have deeper conversations with each other," said Tammy Schwartz, director of the cohort and a faculty member in Miami's education college.

She grew up in Price Hill and Lower Price Hill in a large family raised by her mother who struggled to make ends meet.

"I knew what it was like to navigate the reality of poverty, food insecurity, safety issues and what that meant to go into a school where you could tell who looked at you and valued you no matter where you're from," Schwartz said. "If it weren’t for those teachers, there is no way that I would have a doctor in front of my name."

She wants interaction between Miami's largely middle-class, white students and low-income, minority communities to help lead to "a more just and equitable society," she said. "It's about every kid in this city who is marginalized for one reason or other. There is so much human potential in this city that we are not tapping into."

"We start to transform Cincinnati in a little way," Schwartz said.

One of those transformers is Anna Hartman, 22, who began teaching fourth grade at Oyler School in Lower Price Hill this month after graduating from Miami and participating in the Over-the-Rhine cohort. Hartman grew up in a middle-class family in West Chester.

"I want to integrate community into curriculum, to take Common Core and make lessons about real-world issues they have right here in Lower Price Hill," she said. "And I just want to continually seek out strong relationships with parents where I'm completely 100 percent partners with them."

Hartman said her experience living and teaching in Over-the-Rhine gave her a deeper understanding of the challenges that many students face.

"Sometimes food runs out. They may be limited to what they buy at the end of the month. It kind of helped me learn when to show patience, when instead of punishing a kid giving them a piece of Play-Doh and sending them into the hallway for five minutes." -- Anna Hartman

Skiba said the disparities by race usually don't stem from conscious racism.

"We don’t need to call schools dropout factories or racist, but there is plenty of room for self-reflection to ask if these are the most effective strategies to improve our school climate," Skiba said.

"Kids really do have difficult behavior that needs to be dealt with, and we can't allow disruptive behavior to rule our schools," he said. " I think we can say, though, that simply removing kids from school is just not an effective way of creating the kind of school environment we want."

Instead, Skiba and Natasha T. Williams, a colleague in the Equity Project, said schools can bridge the disciplinary gap by diversifying faculty and administration. 

"Improving the discipline gap will also have a positive effect on achievement, especially for students of color," they said.

Kiesha Honaker is optimistic this will be a better school year for Keylan. He's a fourth-grader now at Pleasant Run Elementary in Northwest Local School District in a classroom for students with ADD and ADHD.

His new teacher has experience working with students who have behavior problems, Honaker said, and the school has a psychologist to work with parents and students.

"I think there's a good start to working everything out," she said.

Honaker hopes this school year will mark a new beginning for her son and other students like him throughout the school district, she said.

"I just would like people to be able to be treated fair," she said. "I'm just glad to see them trying to put things in place."

Keylan plays with a beach ball with his older brother outside their home home in Colerain Township, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014.Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO

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WCPO School Discipline Methodology

The analysis of Tri-State school disciplinary actions was compiled using data from 2012-2013 Ohio and Kentucky school report cards. These data are used to compile the U.S. Office Of Civil Rights’ School District Profile Reports

Data include student expulsions, suspensions, corporal punishment incidents and police referrals, by race, for schools and districts in Boone, Campbell, Gallatin, Grant and Kenton counties in Kentucky, and Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties in Ohio.

Schools were classified by a district’s location, using “Urban-centric” locale codesassigned by the National Center For Education Statistics. 

Comparisons of schools in Kentucky and Ohio districts classified as “large suburban districts” and “urban schools” were specifically used in the analysis to show differences in districts with large minority student enrollment and those with smaller, but growing, minority enrollment.

School and district rates for each race group were calculated by dividing the total number of disciplinary actions by total enrollment, then multiplying the result by 100.

The “per 100 students” calculation is consistent with the weighting process used by the Office of Civil Rights to produce rates in its profile reports.

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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