Missouri School System Ranked #1 For Discipline Disparity
A study by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA ranked Missouri top in the nation for disparity in how often black students and white students are suspended for infractions—adding to the ever-growing body of evidence of systemic injustices against the black community. In the 2011-2012 school year, 14.3 percent of black elementary students were suspended at least once. This compares with only 1.8 percent of white students.
The study points out failures in the school system that many of us providing Multisystemic Therapy in St. Louis know too well. Among them are inconsistent and punitive discipline practices. This racial disparity reinforces negative self-images, reduces opportunities for success and further pushes students down what is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. As Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, put it, “This type of large disparity impacts both the academic achievement and life outcomes of millions of historically disadvantaged children, inflicting upon them a legacy of despair rather than opportunity.”
Bias colors treatment
Losen also said that black boys are often penalized more harshly children of other races. “What we’re coming to understand as a culture, [is] there’s a tendency to perceive a situation involving black males as being more dangerous than it actually is.”
MST therapists know that fair and consistent consequences are essential to transforming at-risk youths into successful young adults prepared to accomplish their goals. One of my cases last fall, Kevin, is an example of ineffective discipline practices and how the MST team in St. Louis is advocating for the black youth we serve. His referral came in with typical problem behaviors—truancy, physical aggression at school, running away and possible gang involvement. He had been placed in an alternative school just a couple months into his freshman year in high school. At the point of referral, he was beginning his sophomore year with just one credit and two weeks late because he had been on the run for two weeks.
Did the punishment fit the “crimes”?
Kevin and his mom were not sure exactly why one fight in his freshman year had resulted in an alternative placement. The new school had addressed his truancy and lack of work completion with out-of-school suspensions and failing grades—neither of which concerned Kevin. Without any path to success, he had fallen further into a cycle of avoiding school and engaging with negative peers. His mom and I set about the work of finding out what was happening in the classroom, and what he would need to be successful there.
Kevin’s mom showed impressive perseverance—stating clear expectations for consistent communication on all discipline issues, getting her son tested for additional services (and therefore increased oversight and accountability for current interventions aimed at helping him be successful in the classroom) and offering herself as a consistent support for staff in setting expectations for completing work. With clear expectations and contingencies for attendance and doing his work, Kevin began thriving at his school.
One of my favorite moments while working with him and his family was when mom called from the school barbeque. Kevin was there helping cook, taking a clear leadership role that the teachers had entrusted to him. His mom was so proud to see him joking with teachers and finding his place in a world that had often been difficult for him to navigate.
I hope that Kevin continues to find and develop places where he and his skills can shine and grow. It is also my hope that the conversations, interventions and strength-focused approach that transformed Kevin’s school experience also helped his school staff develop more effective strategies for addressing the needs of so many kids like him. It is our work as MST therapists to leave the systems we encounter better prepared to foster success—whatever it takes, one youth at a time.
Amie Feick, MA, LPC is an MST Supervisor at Places for People in St. Louis.