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Districts Detail Training to Remedy Discipline Disparities

Enhancing Equity Sito Narcisse

A disproportionate number of students are suspended and even expelled in many school districts. The vast majority of these suspensions are for minor and discretionary infractions in the classrooms, hallways and cafeterias for behaviors such as disrupting class, talking back to administrators, tardiness and violating the dress code.

That stark reality was shared at a Thursday conference session, Enhancing Equity Through Reforming Discipline.

As a result of these practices, these students fall behind in class, resulting in negative academic outcomes, including decreased graduation rates.

“School discipline is the tip of the iceberg,” said Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for the Metro Nashville, Tenn., Public Schools and one of the panelists. “Suspension rates are one component of what is sliding off those icebergs.”

Narcisse was joined by Sybil Knight-Burney, superintendent of Harrisburg City, Pa., School District. They shared how their respective districts have addressed equity by reforming the district’s student disciplinary practices. Bryan Joffe, project director of AASA, offered an overview of the research related to school discipline reform.

All three speakers highlighted how race is one factor in the disparities. Narcisse found in his district that African American students, both male and female, are three times as likely to be suspended and Latino students are two times as likely to be suspended.

“Every effort should be made to keep students in class and learning,” said Joffe. “There’s a correlation between students being suspended and those students falling behind in class.”

Narcisse and Knight-Burney shared the strategies used in their districts to support students and to work with their principals, teachers and other administrators at the school level.

Knight-Burney’s district runs poverty training for all the teachers in each building. She examines the school data and policies, so she, as superintendent, can have a deeper understanding of it and how it impacts the district’s discipline policies.

One key strategy for her is meeting with the principals in all 11 schools to talk about school discipline at the building level.

“We need to look at the ‘why’ in why students are being suspended,” said Knight-Burney. “In these meetings, I’m not telling the principals what to do and I admit to them I don’t know everything. I let my guard down. I let them know they need to go to the classrooms and have conversations with their teachers. I use resources I’ve received from AASA to ignite my conversations with the principals.”

Metro Nashville, Tenn., Public Schools worked with the Annenberg Institute to create Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity, a program to reduce the disparities in suspension rates among minority students by addressing the root of problems (

The speakers recognized that reforming school discipline is a work in progress for any school district. They encouraged session participants to work with community stakeholders and the variety of school administrators in their buildings.

“If something doesn’t feel right, go into your school buildings,” said Knight-Burney, concluding the session. “Go into the classrooms and become reconnected on why you are here [as an educator].”

(Rebecca Shaw is a reporter for Conference Daily Online.)

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