Although Loudoun County Public Schools says it is working to improve the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in its teacher workforce, the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP have raised additional concerns about another race-based disparity in the school system: disproportionate discipline.
According to a 2015 University of Pennsylvania study, black students in Loudoun were 7 percent of the population but made up 21.1 percent of all school suspensions. The study also found that black students were over-suspended relative to their enrollment at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts.
Statistics on school safety and discipline are available through the Virginia Department of Education. Statistics for the 2016-17 school year will be available later this year.
A large contributor to disproportionate discipline practices are zero tolerance policies since they do not allow for adjustments on a case-by-case basis and disrupt students’ education without solving the root problem, according to the study. The study also found that black students were most often disciplined for being disrespectful and threatening, loitering and excessive noise while white students were disciplined by school officers for more serious offenses such as smoking, leaving without permission and vandalism.
How Does Loudoun Compare?
Traditional discipline utilized by LCPS includes in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, alternative education programs at the Douglass School and expulsion.
Instead of relying primarily on suspensions, LCPS has begun to implement a restorative practice model. Restorative practice aims to reduce the disparity in suspensions for students of color and students with disabilities by providing a positive discipline option, LCPS Support Services Supervisor Suzanne Peterson said.
Restorative practice operates by giving the students involved in the conflict to be part of the solution. Students involved in conflicts with other students — and sometimes faculty — will sit down in a conference where each side tells what they felt and experienced. A trained facilitator oversees the conference and at the end, all parties come up with an agreement that solves the problem and potentially repairs the relationship, Peterson said.
“To see students actually have an opportunity to resolve the conflict is pretty powerful,” she said. “You’re able to get to the root of the problem.”
Peterson said restorative practice was first introduced to LCPS in the 2013-14 school year and has since been used at every middle and high school. In addition to Pupil Services staff learning the restorative practice training, school-based staff are now also being trained to better implement the practice in their schools.
The first year restorative practice was used, LCPS saw 17 cases, Peterson said. Last year, that number grew to 90 cases with over 100 referrals. Between 2013 to 2016, restorative practice saved 210 general education students 262 days of out of school suspension, and 92 special education students from missing a collective 102 days of out of school suspension, Peterson said.
In the 2015-16 school year, 100 percent of students involved in restorative practice conferences followed their agreement, 97 percent felt the issue was resolved and 94 percent felt safer in school.
Not only does the restorative practice conference and subsequent agreement keep students connected and accountable, but it also helps students learn how to manage conflict in the future.
“This is one of the most impactful programs we’ve implemented in Loudoun County,” Peterson said. “It’s an equitable practice because when done to fidelity, it’s a set of questions that gives everyone in the room a voice.”
Nevertheless, doubts exist around the practice’s effectiveness in reducing the student discipline disparity gap. Restorative practice is not applied evenly to all schools in Loudoun NAACP president Phillip Thompson said the organization has received reports of restorative practices being offered to white students more than black students.
He has called for LCPS to release data on how restorative practices is being applied. For now, he’s not satisfied.
“The statistics show a difference and that there are problems,” Thompson said. “Restorative practice model is another way for white kids to get out of trouble. That’s what we’ve been finding out.”