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Black students in Portland four times more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites

KATU file image

African-American K-12 students in Oregon are 2.3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

In Portland Public Schools, black children are four times more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites.

While districts including PPS are making progress on the issue, authorities admit much more needs to be done and critics are losing hope.

"Sending him to the wolves every day ..."

"Our kids go through it a lot and it's just difficult to deal with," Cashawn Edwards, the mother of a former student at the Ivy School, a public charter elementary school in Northeast Portland, told KATU last week.

"I said I wasn't gonna get emotional and I'm still doin' it," Edwards said, fighting back tears.

She said her son attended the Ivy School for about three years before she took him out in 2015.

"He was the only African-American child in the classroom," Edwards said, "and in fourth and fifth grade."

She claims students severely bullied her son.

"He got threats," she said, "and called n***er in the classroom."

Edwards said she met with the principal and requested a meeting with other children's parents, which never happened.

And she said administrators never followed through on resolving the issue.

"They didn't do anything about it," Edwards said.

But when there were other problems in class, Edwards said her son was singled out more than others.

"He was always the one being pulled out of the classroom," Edwards said. "He felt like he was getting picked on or when they were trying to mediate different situations, it was always him. It was like I'm sending him to the wolves every day."

Liz Caravaca, the Ivy School's current principal, was not there at the time. She said she "can't legally comment on any individual student or family." She did say that "the school is committed to educational equity and anti-racism education" in all that they do.

A summer newsletter from Caravaca outlines some of the school's equity work, telling parents, "Before school starts, we -- Ivy teachers and staff -- will prepare ourselves to have meaningful and effective conversations with children about difficult and controversial stuff. As a community this year our Peace Education focus is anti-racism and anti-bullying."

As a charter school, the Ivy School receives state funding through Portland Public Schools but is run independently.

"I don't think it'll ever change."

Sheila Warren founded the group, Portland Parent Union, in 2009.

"The motivation was racism in the school and people feeling privileged around their process," she told KATU.

Warren says stories like Edwards' are all too common.

"What the issue is is not that these kids have behavior issues, it's the system does not know how to deal with these children."

She says she's helped hundreds of parents in the Portland area.

"We're seeing from kindergarten or Head Start to fifth grade those kids being demonized and labeled as behavior issues and mostly are black boys," Warren said. "Black boys are being labeled as emotionally disturbed. The system does not know how to deal with that."

Specifically, Warren recalls a young African-American special needs student she says was dealt with too harshly in a PPS school.

"He's autistic, he's 6 years old and he touches somebody, you know he touches somebody, and it happened to be a white girl," Warren said. "In his record he (has) sexual assault, assault and battery because he hit a teacher. But he has a disability. So another child who was white, who has autism does the same thing -- they're not labeled as assault and battery."

And Warren says she knows that because she helps parents of children with disabilities of all races and ethnicities.

She is frustrated in part because her group held regular meetings with Portland Public Schools officials for two years until she says they failed to show up to a meeting scheduled this summer.

"I don't know what I can tell you that I need to tell them that I have not already told them. I don't think it'll ever change," Warren said.

Rick Kirschmann, program director of School Climate and Discipline for Portland Public Schools, says the district isn't anywhere near where it wants to be.

"This is not just a local issue here, it's a national issue."

And nationally there's been progress with the total number of suspensions for all races and ethnicities dropping by nearly 20 percent since 2011.

And Portland Public Schools cut the number of suspensions and expulsions for all kids by 49 percent from 2012 to 2015. But students of color, particularly black students, are still far more likely to be removed from school than whites.

"The data's clear both nationally and locally; it's not for behaviors that are violent and unsafe, it's for behaviors that we would call, that are more subjective, right, and so those subjective behaviors around what we might call respect or defiance we know that there's a cultural and racial component to those, and so that's where we're investing and increasing the practices in how we would respond to that," Kirschmann said.

Portland Public Schools is working on a three-pronged approach to help solve the problem.

It involves what officials call "culturally responsive teaching," "positive behavioral interventions and supports" and "restorative justice," a practice "focused on resolving conflicts by strengthening relationships instead of punishment."

Or as Warren defines it: "Rather than suspend they just sit down and say, 'OK, let's figure out how we can make this better.'"

Kirschmann says the list of which schools are using restorative justice is evolving and there is a goal to have it implemented district-wide.

"To expand this to all of our schools as fast as we can is the short answer," he said. "At this point the district hasn't set a hard date or a timeline around that."

The district says all schools have begun implementing the other two parts of that three-pronged approach.

Warren says after KATU spoke with Kirschmann he called her and they're set to meet again next week.


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