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High Suspension Rates at Oklahoma City Public Schools Trigger Systemic Changes

Belle Isle Enterprise Middle School in Oklahoma City.

According to a study out of UCLA, suspension rates at Oklahoma City Public Schools are some of the highest in the nation. Nearly half of the students in the district got suspended there in the 2011-2012 school year, according to this report.

The district Superintendent questions the report’s rankings, but doesn’t deny there is a discipline problem. He says they are already laying down plans to make major changes. 

Between the 7th and 8th grades Caleb Walker got suspended four times. A couple times for fighting and a couple times for being a “silly boy” according to his mom.

He went to Belle Isle Middle School, which is a charter school in the Oklahoma City Public School district.

Caleb’s mom, Arlette Walker, doesn’t entirely blame her son for getting suspended all those times.  She thinks the teachers and principals were quick to discipline him, without taking a look at the real issue.

“I think in schools now they don’t have time to go over details. They just want to... ok… you’re going to have detention or suspension. Just to get it over with, but I don’t think it really teaches a child anything,” she said.

Caleb was one of many who got suspended in the district. Potentially one of too many, depending on who you ask.

Dan Losen, the Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies out of UCLA, says Oklahoma City Public School’s suspension rates for the 2011-2012 school year were some of the highest in the nation.

“These rates are just extraordinarily high,” Losen said.

He conducted a nation-wide study, comparing district to district, and found that Oklahoma City Public Schools suspended nearly half the students in fifth through twelfth grade during the 2011-2012 school year. The national suspension rate was ten percent.

When they broke the data down by race, Oklahoma City came in as the highest suspending district for black students nation-wide. 75 percent of black males were suspended, and 54 percent of females, according to the report.

Credit UCLA Civil Rights Project
Secondary students’ suspension risks at Oklahoma City Public Schools, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and gender, 2011-12.

Months before the report even came out – the Federal Office of Civil Rights started investigating Oklahoma City Public Schools for discrimination against black and Hispanic students in the area of discipline. That investigation is ongoing.

“So it is a civil rights concern—but it’s also a general concern for the education policy and practice,” said Losen.

Losen says suspensions can be damaging to students. They miss class time, get behind in their work, and usually don’t learn anything so problems continue. He also says that most of them are unnecessary.

The district Superintendent, Rob Neu, agrees. He recently told school board members that suspending students for things like truancy doesn’t make any sense.

Neu said the district conducted its own internal audit of the discipline data, and found a lot of inconsistencies among the schools.

"What we've found through this audit is that we've kind of relied on out-of-school suspension as our imbedded way of handling student discipline and that needs to stop,” he told school board members at a meeting in mid- March.

Neu was not the superintendent when the national data was collected, and doesn’t know how things got to be this way, but says if things don’t change his students will have much bigger problems down the road.

“The national data suggests that if we don’t change our trajectory for how we are handling these students, how we are engaging these students, then they’re not only going to be dropouts, but they’re likely going to be prematurely incarcerated, or dead.”

He recently told the school board members that the code of conduct needs to be revised by next year, and that out of school suspensions should be used for only the most serious offenses. He said the district is going to implement systemic changes in the way they discipline students.

“Bottom line, we need these kids in school,” he said.

  • You can find UCLA's full suspension report here.
Emily Wendler was KOSU's education reporter from 2015 to 2019.
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