Counselors Not Cops in Schools

Dear Milwaukee Board of School Directors and Superintendent Posley:

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has a historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the racial discrimination that has plagued our district for far too long. Thursday night, May 31, 2018 the Board of School Directors is set to vote on student discipline policies. We are deeply concerned about the content of some of these dangerous policies and request that the vote be delayed to allow for young people, teachers, and the community to provide meaningful input on the proposal in front of the Board and Superintendent in the following weeks.

In their current form, these policies fail to respond to youth concerns and input, do not address the core issues presented in the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Resolution Agreement, will harm young people by further entrenching the school-to-prison pipeline in schools, and do not provide alternatives to punitive and exclusionary discipline that would reduce the overall rate of suspensions and police referrals. For these reason, which are explained further below, we request that the Board of School Directors vote against the proposed policies and then provide an opportunity in the next six weeks for the public to openly debate and comment on the proposals.

Tonight’s vote comes just five months after news broke that our school district had reached a Resolution Agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights due to MPS’ discriminatory punishment of Black students, including disproportionately high rates of referrals to law enforcement, suspensions, expulsions, and other disciplinary actions. OCR’s findings have yet to be published by MPS, but Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) will publish it on our website because we believe transparency is crucial in the community understanding of this critical issue.

There is abundant evidence of the discriminatory treatment of Black students within MPS. According the Office for Civil Rights report, over the course of two school years federal investigators identified “over one hundred incidents at the District’s schools where [B]lack students were expelled, while similarly-situated white students were suspended for similar misconduct.” In addition, the most recent MPS data from the 2015–2016 school year shows that 80% of the 10,267 suspensions were of Black students, who make up just 53% of the total enrollment. In the 2013–2014 school year, Black students accounted for 84.6% of the referrals to law enforcement.

Earlier this year, LIT, a Milwaukee youth of color led organization, published a report with the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), which explored this data and demonstrated how Milwaukee’s reliance on punitive approaches to discipline is ineffective, costly, and, most troublingly, racially biased. The presence of police officers, guns, handcuffs, and metal detectors in schools creates hostile teaching and learning environments that are reinforced by harsh, punitive, and exclusionary school discipline policies.

The rate of suspension and referrals to law enforcement of Black students is a public health epidemic in our school district. When MPS excludes young people from school they are far more likely to dropout. Police presence and interactions also cause lasting psychological harm. Recent research shows that over time, the mere presence of police may have a compounding psychological effect on students’ “nervous and immune systems that may result in anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation, inability to focus, social withdrawal, and aggressive behaviors.” Community studies suggest these adverse consequences are compounded when a person perceives that the negative interaction is motivated by race. Racial discrimination can lead to generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health issues.

The OCR process was intended to address several specific concerns identified by OCR, including:

  • significantly higher out of school suspension and expulsion rates for black students;

  • a lack of consistency regarding under what circumstances students are to be referred for discipline;

  • a lack of training for staff on the District’s discipline policies and procedures;

  • a lack of criteria for when staff may remove a student from a classroom and send the student to the office;

  • a lack of or incomplete documentation regarding individual disciplinary incidents to ensure students engaging in similar behavior are disciplined consistently;

  • the discipline code being applied differently at different schools across the District for the same type of behavior;

  • the discipline referral process was not the same across the district;

  • the District’s discipline policies and procedures do not limit the use of out of school suspension and expulsions to the most severe disciplinary infractions that threaten school safety or to those circumstances where mandated by Federal or State law;

  • black students were disproportionately disciplined for incidents in several categories of misconduct that are subjective in nature, including chronic disruption or violation of school rules and disorderly conduct;

  • the District subjects students to exclusionary discipline for subjective discipline categories that have not been clearly defined;

  • the District does not have effective safeguards in place to monitor the exercise of discretion in referrals and imposition of sanctions to ensure it is nondiscriminatory; and, 

  • black students were given more severe disciplinary sanctions than white students who appear to be similarly situated.

With this Resolution Agreement, MPS was given an opportunity to transform its approach to discipline to be inclusive, supportive, and non-discriminatory. The proposed policies that the Board of School Directors will vote on today fails to address the concerns outlined by OCR or transform the discipline policies.

There are a few portions of the proposed policies that exemplify the danger presented should these amendments be passed.  

  • Policy 8.23(8)(b) states that “school administrators shall involve the police department for any instance in which criminal activity is suspected”.  This policy will codify the school-to-prison pipeline in MPS as it forces police involvement even for normal youthful behavior. For instance, if after a disagreement a student pushes another student in the hallway, arguably a school administrator would be required to involve the police even if the conflict could be readily resolved through a conversation with the students since the push may be classified as “battery.”  This policy removes school administrators’ autonomy to handle youthful behavior in a manner they deem appropriate for the school setting and instead entrenches police in schools. It is also clear that based on previous data, the vast majority of the students referred to law enforcement will be Black students, in direct contradiction of the goals presented in the OCR resolution.

  • This harm will be compounded by the mandatory expulsion recommendations required, for example, in 8.23(2)(a)(2). The policies contradict themselves. Policy 8.32 acknowledges expulsion is a “drastic step” that “shall be rarely necessary.” Yet, throughout the revised policies there are mandatory recommendations for expulsion for everything from assault (which does not include any bodily contact), to any battery which would include most fights, and possession of marijuana.

These are just two of several extremely problematic provisions in the revised policies. There are others including failure to collect data, vague classroom removal guidelines, and others. The OCR Resolution Agreement aimed to reduce suspensions and disparate referrals to police. These policies are in direct contradiction to that goal.  

In addition to its failure to address the fundamental policy points OCR recommended to end the discriminatory treatment of Black students in MPS, there are no resources allocated to carry out a renewed training program, anti-biased training, reduce classroom sizes, or hire guidance counselors and support professionals, among other necessary changes.

Not only do the proposed changes to the administrative policies fail to decrease the disproportionality of discipline, they will increase the discriminatory practices throughout MPS and put more students on rail to jail.

The Office for Civil Rights settlement mandated that by June 18, 2018, the District will revise its policies and procedures for discipline to be effective with the 2018-2019 school year. In doing so, the District will take into account any recommendations or suggestions made by the student committees. So far we have seen no evidence that input given from student committees, the seven public meetings, the more than 1,600 petitions, or any of our other communications has been adopted into these policies.

Milwaukee still has the opportunity to transform its approach to discipline and end its discriminatory practices. To create a new way of valuing the dignity of students, Milwaukee must center the experiences and expertise of young people to develop policies that can provide them with the freedom to thrive. We urge the Milwaukee Public School Board and Administration to reject these proposals, provide a genuine opportunity for public input in front of the Board and Superintendent, and invest in alternatives to criminalizing students.  

Dakota Hall