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‘I Think It’s Racism’: Providence, Rhode Island, Superintendent Squarely Points Out Why Black Students Disproportionately Get Suspended

A City Council meeting held in Providence, Rhode Island, Wednesday tackled the disparity between the number of suspensions Black students face versus those of other ethnic groups in the local school district. And according to the superintendent, racism is to blame.

New data presented from the Providence School Board on May 29 discussed the out-of-school suspension rates and ways they can be lowered, WPRI reported. According to the stats, 24.5 percent of suspended male students during the year were Black, yet they make up 15.9 percent of the student population in general. The stats are similar for the Black female students in the district. Data show Black females make up 25.2 percent of this year’s suspensions. Meanwhile, they comprise only 16.5 percent of the entire female student population.

Providence Public Schools
Black students at Providence Public Schools get suspended at a higher rate than others in the district. (Getty Images)

The findings were presented by Dr. Marco Andrade, Providence Public Schools’ director office of research, planning and accountability, at the first joint meeting between the school board and Providence City Council.

In Andrade’s presentation, he stated multiracial and Native American students are disproportionately suspended from school when compared against white, Hispanic, Asian and Southeast Asian students.

Asked what the reason for the disparities is, Superintendent Chris Maher pointed to bigotry.

“I think it’s racism,” WPRI reported he said at the meeting. “I don’t know of another good reason we could give of why African-American students are disproportionately suspended.”

While the school has had issues in the area for years, data presented this week showed progress has been made. Among suspensions from April 2015 to April 2019, there has been a 45 percent decrease in students getting booted from school. Data also noted out-of-school suspensions for more minor violations like defiance or disruptiveness have decreased by 74 percent since 2015.

The district has also implemented plans to make a change, including reserving out-of-school suspensions for the worst behaviors, like threats.

Despite the lowered suspension rates, Maher said there is still work to be done. He noted that progress has been “inadequate and incomplete.”

“We have a lot of work to do in this area,” he said.

In addition to the school board data, the meeting also saw a presentation from the local nonprofit, Young Voices R.I., which gives low-income youth a voice to become civic leaders down the line. The students said that over the course of a two-year study, they found evidence of favoritism, problems with discipline, and some instructors lacking cultural sensitivity.

“I think discipline in my school is biased because some students get away with things while others don’t,” one student surveyed said.

Students from Classical High School hoped to have a more “caring environment” and for teachers to have more empathy for things like “poverty, transportation, violence and child care.”

Melanie Nunez, a sophomore at Classical, agreed with Maher’s assertion that racism is to blame for the suspension disparity. Melanie said she was “1,000 percent sure” of its veracity.

“We have met with [Young Voices] and listened to their concerns,” said a PPS statement obtained by the Providence Journal. “We took what we heard back and implemented a number of their recommendations from past presentations they have made to the board, including expanding our work in restorative practices. We believe that the steady decrease in out-of-school suspensions over the past few years is directly related to our promotion of restorative practices.

“Despite a difficult budget situation, Providence Public Schools has prioritized investing in social emotional supports in recent years, including hiring more social workers and providing more mental-health services to schools.”

The City Council is set to follow up on the issues raised by Young Voices, according to the Providence Journal. Providence City Council President Sabina Matos said that she will look into creating a joint committee with the City Council and school board to solve students’ issues.

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