ITHACA, NY – Are economically disadvantaged students and students of color more prone to being disciplined at Ithaca City School District? That was one question the ICSD board mulled over during a Tuesday meeting.

The board reviewed a variety of statistics such as graduation rates, advanced placement and honors program enrollment and disciplinary incidents in their 2016 Accountability Metrics report.

The district has seen a substantial decrease in disciplinary referrals over the last six years. During the 2010-2011 school year, there were 7,573 disciplinary referrals, compared to just 2,752 during the 2015 – 2016 school year.

Use of in-school suspension at Ithaca High School also came way down — from 1,222 to 213 during that same time frame. Out-of-school suspension also came down, but not by as much, dropping from a high of 211 down to 89.

However, the district is aiming to bring these numbers down even further.

“We’ll start with that 2015-2016 number, that’s our new baseline. How do we go down from there?,” said ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown. “It’s shifted so much it’s hard to even think about what it would look like to have 7,500 referrals in our school district.”

While acknowledging the progress made, board Vice President Sean Bradwell aired concerns about which students were on the receiving end of disciplinary actions.

“It’s disheartening and shocking that almost 80 percent of all referrals and 80 percent of all suspensions are for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch,” said Bradwell. “You can’t tell me that’s not structural, you can’t be 30 percent of the population and 80 percent of the referrals without something going on.”

Bradwell said that while engaging those students in co-curricular activities could help, he felt it fell to the board and faculty to have a conversation about how they react to these students and if implicit bias was causing them to be disproportionately punished. He pointed out that economically disadvantaged students make up 80 percent of the referrals now, versus 50 percent years ago.

“We’re giving them referrals, we’re suspending them. It’s their actions, but I have a hard time believing those students are any more rambunctious than any other students,” he said.

Board member Eldred Harris agreed that students may be targeted due to their economic status or ethnicity adding that there’s also another class of students who seemingly avoid punishment even for flagrant offenses.

“They’re not perceived as children who would be capable of that, or who should definitely be upgraded and given a referral for,” Harris said. “That’s a longstanding historical problem that goes pretty deep.”

A student’s perspective

Student representatives in attendance shared their views, with one student from Lehman Alternative Community School giving a personal account.

“As a student who comes from a low-income family admittedly, I have noticed that in this district I’ve had to work about 70 times harder,” she said. “My best friends is a white male from a two-parent household whose parents both work at Cornell, he’s had a much easier ride When he struggles with a problem there are seven staff members there to support him and to make sure his problem gets dealt with.”

“The challenges he faces are never insurmountable to him. Every time I’ve faltered I’ve felt like I had to pick myself up… I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he’s seen as someone who those small slip-ups are seen as bigger than they are for other students. That’s the kind of thing that translates to students getting suspended. If a student can’t get the help they need, it’s going to come out another way,” she continued.

(Featured photo: School board Vice President Sean Bradwell. Source: YouTube)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.