With two months still left in the school year, administrators at Taft Middle School in Oklahoma City have already suspended more than half of their black students.

At Capitol Hill High School, the average length of a suspension is nearly 12 days, or more than two weeks of missed class time. Capitol Hill officials also told several parents that re-enrolling their children was a “waste of time” because of the re-enrollment date.

Northwest Classen High School and Douglas Mid-High School each referred 20 percent of their students to alternative education programs meant for students at risk of failing or getting kicked out of school.

These and other findings are part of an internal audit, obtained by Oklahoma Watch Monday, that was conducted by Oklahoma City Public Schools. The audit was partly in response to a U.S. Department of Education civil rights investigation focusing on complaints of race-based bias in how students are disciplined.

School officials also said Oklahoma City Superintendent Rob Neu, who is in his first year on the job, requested the audit after arriving in Oklahoma because of the improvements it led to in his old school in Washington state.

The audit, which Oklahoma Watch obtained through an Open Records Act request, corroborates what a release of federal data revealed last year: According to the three-year-old data, Oklahoma City’s black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates in middle or high school.

“Our secondary building principals are aware of the findings and there has been productive dialogue on the expectations moving forward,” Neu said in a written statement Monday. “Our school leaders need training on how to be more proactive about solving issues with kids before they escalate into discipline issues; and this district must streamline processes in order to monitor inconsistencies and intervene when necessary; the work begins now.”

Mapping Bias

Use this map to look at the details of the audit at each school. Click on a school to see the breakdown in suspensions, by race.

The most common reasons for suspension included disruptive behavior, defiance of authority and fighting, according to the district.

The audit also found discrepancies in how students are punished for the same infractions within the same school.

“While one student may be given one day of suspension for an incident, another student may be suspended 10 days for the same offense,” the audit found. “This is supported by the average length of suspensions across the district.”

The difference in suspension rates between races is dramatic at some schools.

At Taft, 52.5 percent of black students have been suspended as of March of this school year, compared with 24.8 percent for Hispanics and 25.2 percent for whites.

At Jefferson Middle School, the audit shows 31.6 percent of black students and 14.7 percent of white students were suspended through March.

That is an improvement from last year, when 39.6 percent of black students and 11.1 percent of white students were suspended.

Suspension of Hispanic students at Jefferson increased during the same period, from 10.8 percent to 14.7 percent.

John Marshall Middle School had the largest discrepancy in suspensions between white and Hispanic students.

The audit shows 18.8 percent of Hispanic students have been suspended so far this year, compared with 10.4 percent of white students. The audit also shows 20.9 percent of black students have been suspended.

The district is supposed to set up a plan to ensure students keep up with classwork while out of school.

At U.S. Grant High School, 44 students never returned to school after being suspended, according to the audit.

In some cases, the school created obstacles that prevented students from enrolling, according to auditors who spoke with parents.

“Also when called, parents indicated they were told there was no space to enroll at Grant or student would waste time since late in year,” the audit said.

The audit also found several schools referred too many students to alternative education programs.

The finding has prompted the district to change how students are referred, especially in response to minor or non-violent infractions.

Capitol Hill High School has the highest average time of suspesion of studenst, at nearly 12 days. It also has referred 17 percent of its students to alternative education.
Capitol Hill High School has one of the the highest average time of suspension of students, at nearly 12 days. It also has referred 17 percent of its students to alternative education. Credit: Victor Henderson / Oklahoma Watch

Douglas and Northwest had the highest referral rates, at 20 percent, followed by Capitol Hill High School at 17 percent, Oklahoma Centennial Mid-High School at 15 percent, U.S. Grant High School at 14 percent and John Marshall High School at 11 percent.

In some cases, school officials told suspended students they couldn’t enroll back into their local school, and must instead enroll into an alternative school.

The audit found several instances where school officials didn’t properly refer students to alternative schools, causing them to never enroll in another school.

“Data gained from parent and charter school conversations and data gained in the audit indicates schools have the practice of withdrawing, or refusing to enroll, students and directing the parents to go to alternative education (Emerson or Seeworth),” the audit said. “In these cases, no referral was submitted by the school to the alternative education committee, resulting in students not being in school.”

Despite high referral numbers at some schools, only 3 percent of students are in alternative education district-wide. Referral rates can mean schools are trying to divert too many students for minor or non-violent infractions that should be handled by the school instead.

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights investigation was sparked by a complaint filed by a parent who said the district was unfairly punishing black students.

That complaint focused on race-based harassment, retaliation and discrimination against Hispanic and black students related to discipline. The district received the complaint in August.

Neu, who is in his first year as superintendent, has said the district is making changes to address the audit.

Changes include:

• Disbanding the existing code of conduct committee and creating a new one. The committee will develop a new code of conduct with a tiered system for intervention before a student is suspended.
• The new code of conduct will reduce the offenses for which a student can be suspended. The length of suspensions will also be shortened.
• The district will revise the referral and placement of students in alternative education programs.
• The district will implement training and coaching and will monitor data.
• The district will develop an early warning system to identify students who are going off track and identify ways to help them succeed in school.
• The district will also audit its elementary schools.

Oklahoma City is not the only school district struggling with racial disparities in punishment. Issues have been reported and documented in small and large districts across the nation this past year.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan raised concerns about racial disparities in punishment after the department released state, district and school level data early last year.

Duncan said that in many cases, zero tolerance policies were adversely affecting minority students, who were more likely to be punished.

The issue prompted Duncan to write a letter to school administrators across the nation reminding them about the civil rights protections available to students.

Duncan said the discrepancy in punishment can push students out of school and into drugs and crime – an issue known as the “school to prison pipeline.”

“Additionally, fair and equitable discipline policies are an important component of creating an environment where all students feel safe and welcome,” Duncan wrote in a Jan. 8, 2014, letter. “Schools are safer when all students feel comfortable and are engaged in the school community, and when teachers and administrators have the tools and training to prevent and address conflicts and challenges as they arise.”

Oklahoma City Suspension Rates by Race

This table shows the percentage of Oklahoma City high school and middle school students suspended by race in 2014 and 2015. It also shows the racial demographics of each school in 2013. Click the columns to sort them. The 2015 data goes through March.

SchoolTotal 2015Black 2015Hispanic 2015White 2015Total 2014Black 2014Hispanic 2014White 2014
Capitol Hill High School14.7%33.2%9.3%20.5%19.3%25%16.4%19.8%
Classen School of Advanced Studies Middle School1.2%%2.5%2.5%0.4%1.85%1.4%1.4%2.45%
Classen School of Advanced Studies High School1.2%2.5%2.5%0.4%1.85%1.4%1.4%2.45%
Douglass Middle School32.7%35.2%NANA36.6%38.3%NANA
Douglass High School32.7%35.1%NANA36.6%53.7%NA%NA
Jefferson Middle School16.6%31.6%14.7%11.5%14.6%39.6%10.8%11.1%
John Marshall Middle School20.3%20.9%18.8%10.4%22%26.3%9.15%12.9%
John Marshall High School20.3%10%8%3.1%22%20.85%20%12.1%
Northeast Middle School11.8%12.1%0%NA5.8%5.3%10%NA
Northeast High School11.8%17.2%12.5%NA5.8%8.6%7.7%NA
Northwest Classen High School11.5%20.9%8.1%13.1%13.4%23%10.6%11.4%
Oklahoma Centennial Middle School27.8%36.6%12.5%NA32.6%40.9%11%NA
Oklahoma Centennial High School27.8%39.8%24%NA32.6%32.3%19.2%NA
Rogers Middle School36.5%40.8%NA%20.7%29.9%32.7%NA22%
Roosevelt Middle School14.2%NA13.4%14%16.5%NA15.1%25%
Southeast High School6.7%19.2%3.3%9.9%7.6%22.1%3.8%8.8%
Star Spencer High School25.3%28.1%NA8.1%22.6%25.6%NA11.4%
Taft Middle School30%52.5%24.8%25.2%23.3%38.6%15.8%22%
U.S. Grant High School12.6%29.7%10%16.8%16.3%37.8%14%17.3%
Webster Middle School19.9%37.6%16.4%16.8%19.3%38.5%10.8%20.4%

Out Of The Classroom

This chart shows how long the average suspension is in each high school and middle school in Oklahoma City Public Schools. It also shows the percentage of students referred to alternative education programs, which are used for students considered to be at high risk of failing or getting kicked out of school. Only 3 percent of students are in alternative education programs in Oklahoma City.

SchoolAverage Days SuspendedReferred To Alternative Education
Capitol Hill High School11.5717%
Classen School of Advanced Studies Middle School191%
Classen School of Advanced Studies High School30%*
Douglass Middle School5.0420%
Douglass High School5.0420%
Jefferson Middle School6.040%*
John Marshall Middle School6.6111%
John Marshall High School8.611%
Northeast Middle School3.120%*
Northeast High School2.960%*
Northwest Classen High School5.7520%
Oklahoma Centennial Middle School5.1615%
Oklahoma Centennial High School515%
Rogers Middle School3.562%
Roosevelt Middle School3.450%
Southeast High School2.551%
Star Spencer High School4.527%
Taft Middle School2.922%
U.S. Grant High School8.8914%
Webster Middle School5.773%
* Actual number is less than 1 percent.

Sources: Oklahoma City Public Schools audit 2015

Data by Oklahoma Watch interns Ashley Sanchez, Brittan Jenkins and Joey Stipek.

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