Racism? Bodie says updated numbers show decline in out-of-school suspensions

Globe, Nov. 19: Charters suspend more

The statement was dramatic, as were the accompanying statistics: Precinct 13 Town Meeting member Stephen Harrington asked during public participation at the Oct. 23 School Committee meeting, “Did you know that an African-American student is 11 times more likely than a white student to suffer an out-of-school suspension in the Arlington Public Schools?"

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He presented federal statistics from 2011, provided by Arlington's the school administration, supporting his case. A full statement suppoirting his case had been posted to Truepersons.com in 2014, but it has since been removed.

"Some might claim that these are harsh accusations," he said at the meeting. "I don’t want to believe that any one of you is racist or is intentionally formulating policy that is discriminatory."

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie addressed the numbers Thursday, Nov. 13, to the School Committee. She noted an error in the statistics originally reported to the U.S. Department of Justice and added that preliminary current numbers show a decline in the number of out-of-school suspensions.

"I appreciate Dr. Harrington for bringing this to our attention," she said, adding that the numbers he reported spurred her concern.

Harrington's report shows that in 2011 77 percent of Arlington students were white, while African-American and Hispanic students made up less than 9 percent of the student population. He said that black children comprised 3.6 percent of district students but received 24 percent of the suspensions.

"[W]e find that a black child is 11 times more likely to be suspended from the Arlington Public Schools than a white student," he wrote.

But the numbers were not accurate: The district had reported an incorrect figure to the Office of Civil Rights for 2011-12 school year. The error, which she called "obvious," was found following Harrington's Oct. 23 appearance.

Amid the lengthy report, a chart showing out-of-school suspensions had the same number for those with disabilities and those without them, Bodie said. The corrected number changed the ratio of suspensions for blacks and whites.

Submitting revised report

Town Counsel Doug Heim advised the district to submit a revised report to the Office of Civil Rights, she said.

"We are talking about a small sample," she said, and that means slight changes to the numbers reported can have an impact on the overall ratio.

With the revised numbers, she said, "We are definitely seeing a change in the ratio."

According to charts made public at the Nov. 13 committee meeting, the district showed corrected numbers for out-of-school suspensions:

The originally reported numbers were: 96 incidents (45 white, 23 black).

The revised numbers are: 111 incidents (66 white, 19 black).

Group homes an issue

In addition, she said, during 2011-12, the district faced issues related to an increase in the number of Arlington students living in group homes. "We were seeking help for those students," she said.

Preliminary data from 2013-2014 show incidents have declined to 55 total for the year (36 whites, 10 black). In addition, enrollment had grown during the period, from 4,848 to 5,020 students.

Committee member Paul Schlichtman, who works with a variety of number-laden reports in his day job for Lowell public schools, confirmed the complexity involved in reporting the federal figures.

Bodie said the report is submitted every two years, and the next one, for 2013-2014, will be completed in January.

Harrington's comments said the numbers he reported raised an issue of school district policy. Bodie made no comment about policy. 

Harrington was asked for comment Nov. 14.

 This story was published Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, and updated Nov. 19 to add link.