Data shows black Stamford students punished disproportionately
STAMFORD — Candice Fleurimond has noticed a trend at Scofield Magnet Middle School. She receives phone calls about her son, Jaylen, for minor behavioral offenses like taking too long to throw out a piece of paper in class. She’s been told he gets called out on the bus for talking while his white peers who are equally loud aren’t addressed.
Perhaps most notably, Fleurimond said her son received an in-school suspension when he jokingly agreed to a fight after a classmate tried to provoke him by using foul language and other students encouraged them to fight.
“Jaylen pretended like he’d be willing to fight,” Fleurimond said. “The fight never happened. They never got into each other’s faces. But allegedly, there was confusion with other students thinking there was going to be a fight, so my son received one day’s in-school suspension because of that...They said they could tell Jaylen didn’t want to fight.”
Fleurimond said the student who used the foul language, who is also black, received a harsher punishment, including community service and Saturday suspension.
But Fleurimond said when a white classmate called her son the n-word this year, he received the same punishment — one day of in-school suspension — as Jaylen did for the fight that never happened. Fleurimond said school officials also never notified her about the racial slur.
“It’s a racial issue,” Fleurimond said. “The use of the n-word, that’s blatant. This is a blatant racial issue. It’s really unfair as a seventh-grader, you’re exposed to the fact you’re different.”
The speed at which behavioral issues escalate with black students illustrates a larger trend, both in Stamford and nationwide. If you are black or classified with a learning disability, you are more likely than your peers to be disciplined at school, according to new federal data.
“It’s not understanding the cultural background of a student and not understanding why they act the way they act,” said Jack Bryant, president of the Stamford chapter of the NAACP.
The latest data from the U.S. Office for Civil Rights shows while black students comprise 15 percent of the 50 million children enrolled in public schools, they are involved in nearly a third of school-related arrests and referrals to police. And although students classified as learning disabled comprise 12 percent of the national enrollment, 28 percent of arrests and police referrals involve those special-needs students.
In contrast, white, Latino and Asian students were disciplined either proportionately or below their share of overall enrollment.
The glaring disparity for black and learning-disabled students is a red flag for schools that are required to provide equal opportunity for all children, the U.S. Department of Education said.
That goes for urban school districts like Stamford, where data shows black students and those with learning disabilities were suspended and expelled disproportionately.
In Stamford, black students represent 17.5 percent of the nearly 16,000 public-school children, but they accounted for 45.6 percent of in-school suspensions, 42.8 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 42 percent of expulsions. Black students also accounted for 40 percent of referrals to law enforcement.
Learning disabled students make up 11 percent of district enrollment, but account for 21 percent of in-school suspensions, 31 percent of out-of-school suspensions, 17 percent of expulsions and 21 referrals to law enforcement.
Finding a solution
Bryant said one way to curb this would be hiring more black teachers.
“One of our priorities is to get more teachers of color in front of our students,” Bryant said. “We feel people of color in front of our students will be able to adapt, understand and coach our students. A lot of the times, it’ll prove the outcome will improve...they will understand the students and they wouldn’t resort to cookie-cutter discipline in every case.”
Michael Fernandes, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said the district is examining the demographics of all suspended students, including race and gender (male students are also suspended at higher rates).
“Part of the issue we face is disconnected youth and trying to engage,” Fernandes said. “A lot of it’s repeat offenders. A school might have 10 suspensions, but five might be the same kids.”
Michael Meyer, executive director of student support and special programs, said the district works with Stamford police and the Domus Foundation to address issues in the community. School resource officers, the Stamford Public Education Foundation mentorship program and after-school programs like the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council are meant to help all students become more engaged and curb discipline problems overall.
“This is not a surprise,” Meyer said. “This is a national problem. The key factor to consider is it has to do with poverty levels. It has to do with neighborhoods that don’t have access to other things other communities have. We are doing things to engage the community.”
Connecticut is taking steps to tackle a lack of diversity in teaching. State representatives last week passed a bill to improve diverse teacher recruitment and retention.
According to the state Commission on Equity and Opportunity, a third of Connecticut students are not white, but only 7 percent of the state’s teachers are people of color.
Numbers from Stamford Public Schools show 25 out of 152 new hires for the 2016-17 school year were people of color. An improvement was made in the 2017-18 school year, when 24 out of the 100 new employees were nonwhite.
A 2016 report from the state Department of Education showed 85 percent of Stamford educators were white even though those students comprised just 31.8 percent of the enrollment. Black students made up 17.6 percent of the student body, yet there were only 101 black teachers throughout the district.
Bryant said the Stamford NAACP has been working with the district on a minority task force for the past two years to determine how the city’s schools can attract and retain more teachers of color.
“It’s nothing new in Stamford Public Schools,” Bryant said. “They know they need more minority representation in front of students both at the teacher and administration level. They realize they’re accountable. This recent law will help. It’ll get a priority in school districts where it’s not a priority.”
Stamford’s struggles with diversity is not limited to its black student population. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated Stamford Public Schools on claims the district was not providing adequate resources for English Language Learners, including providing improperly trained and uncertified teachers and materials for ELL classes, leading to an achievement gap and low test scores.
The investigation was suspended in 2014 after the district agreed to a settlement, which included hiring more bilingual educators.
The data, reported every two years, comes from the nation’s 17,000 school districts. On the heels of the most recent data released, a white Yale student last week called the police on a black student for napping in a common room. Kimberly Goff-Crews, university secretary and dean for student life, said she would implement listening sessions with students and strengthening campus resources to address issues of racial bias, discrimination and harassment.
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Staff writers Emilie Munson, Ed Stannard and Rob Ryser contributed to this report.