Tonalea Elementary School

Students learned the impact of bullying at an event last October at Tonalea Elementary School, one of the most diverse schools. Participants included, from left, Keslie Mendoza, Ashley Calvert and Reshya Caudwell.

Black, Hispanic and low-income students in Scottsdale Unified School District were disproportionately suspended compared to white or more affluent students over the past three years, district data shows.  

The Progress requested the data after SUSD leadership in June announced the formation of committee to craft an equity and inclusion model for the district to promote inclusivity and fair treatment at its schools.

A Progress analysis of the data shows Black and Hispanic students accounted for higher percentage of suspensions than their overall percentage of the student population over the past three school years.

Dr. Cynthia Bochna, SUSD’s director of Assessment and Accountability, took issue with the Progress’ analysis.

“I don’t see a huge discrepancy with Black and Hispanic being over-represented in the data,” Bochna said. “Looking at the numbers of our white students being the most identified for these in-school and out-of-school school suspensions and knowing that we’re a predominantly white district, that kind of does track.”

White students made up a majority of all students in SUSD and accounted for the most suspensions over the past three years, according to the data.

But that does not tell the whole story.

The data also show that white students accounted for 63 to 64 percent of the entire SUSD student body over the past three school years but only received 51 percent of the suspensions.

Meanwhile, over the same period, Black students accounted for about 5 percent of the total student population but accounted for 11 percent of the suspensions.

At the same time, Hispanic students made up about 23 percent of all students but received 31 percent of the suspensions.

Through that lens, the data show that Black and Hispanic students were overrepresented in the suspensions by about 6 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office used a similar methodology when it analyzed discipline disparities at schools nationwide in 2018, finding that Black boys comprised 15.5 percent of all public school students but accounted for 39 percent of suspensions

So, even though white students were suspended more overall in SUSD, they were still suspended at lower rates than their Black and Hispanic classmates.

The data also showed inequity in suspension numbers for students from lower income families, regardless of ethnicity, over the past two years.

In 2019-2020, students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch in SUSD made up 24 percent of the student population but accounted for 44 percent of suspensions – an over representation of 20 percent. The previous year, the group was overrepresented in suspension data by 25 percent.

But in 2017-2018, students receiving free and reduced-price lunch were underrepresented in suspensions as they made up 25 percent of the student population and accounted for 20 percent of suspensions.

It is unclear what variables could account for the dramatic shift following 2017-2018.

The data show overall suspensions decreased last school year compared to the previous two years.

In 2019-2020, SUSD had 1,790 suspensions compared to 2,477 in 2018-2019 and 2,402 in 2017-2018.

While some of that drop-off may be a result of the fourth-quarter campus closures, it could also be attributed to a district-wide initiative to adopt restorative justice practices.

Those practices focus on mediation, communication and problem solving over traditional punitive punishment. 

Last June, former Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard said the district had already rolled out restorative justice training for assistant principals and that it had been an “amazingly successful program with very few repeat offenders.”

But even as the overall number of suspensions went down, the inequities remained consistent with prior years.

In 2019-2020, white students made up 63 percent of the student population but accounted for 51 percent of the suspensions.

The same year, Black students made up just 5 percent of the overall SUSD student population but received 12 percent of overall suspensions.

Also in 2019-2020, Hispanic students made up 23 percent of the student population but received 32 percent of the suspensions, a 9 percent disparity.

Bochna confirmed the accuracy of the Progress’ calculations but cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the 2019-2020 numbers due to the pandemic-shortened school year.

“Given the unprecedented nature of the 2019-2020 school year, I think the suspension data should be interpreted with caution in comparison to the other school years,” Bochna said. “I am encouraged by the reduction of the gap between suspensions and enrollment by ethnicity from the 2017-2018 school year to the 2018-2019 school year.”

The data does show a small drop in the disparity between racial representation in overall student population and suspensions from 2018 and 2019.

The disparities spelled out in the SUSD data are not unique to Scottsdale.

National studies like the one performed by the GAO in 2018 have shown similar – and sometimes more severe – divides at schools nationwide for years.

Advocates have seen similar trends at districts throughout Arizona as well.

“That is in line with what we’ve seen with other school districts,” said Janelle Wood of the Black Mothers Forum, an advocacy group seeking to end the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Wood said Black and Brown students are often held to a different standard than their white peers and punished for minor infractions and normal classroom behaviors, such as questioning a teacher.

“We’ve noticed that white students can question the teacher and the teacher answers those questions…we’ve found that when a black student or brown student ask those questions, for some reason it is perceived as some sort of challenge to the teacher’s authority,” Wood said.

According to experts, the data bore out those experiences.

“Students of color will oftentimes be sent out of a classroom, whether it be for a suspension or whatever, for doing simple things like dress code violations, or disrespect issues with teachers,” said Dr. Gregory Broberg, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation who has studied the phenomena.

Broberg said data indicate that the ways teachers respond to those student behaviors in the classroom is connected to their own biases, which has led many school districts to implement implicit-bias training.

Advocates and experts said inequity in discipline can lead to short and long-term negative impacts on students.

“It causes a trauma in them… and it makes it very difficult for them to grow,” Wood said. “It makes it very difficult for them to make mistakes and it makes it very difficult for them to exhibit behaviors that are normal for their particular grade level.”

Suspensions in particular can have a negative impact on student’s grades because it removes them from the classroom.

“Obviously, if you’re not in the classroom, you can’t learn,” said Victoria These-Homer, a post-doctoral research associate at the School of Social Transformation.

Theisen-Homer said removing students from the classroom also “affects their ability to connect with these adults who are supposed to be significant figures in their lives to help guide them socially and emotionally, as well as academically.”

Long term, disparities in discipline can affect a student long after they leave high school.

“You’re naturally going to see a lower student achievement, so that’s certainly going to impact their ability to get into college type settings,” Broberg said.

Broberg said tracking drop-out rates is difficult in Arizona but that there is a connection between students who are suspended multiple times and dropping out.

Wood said children of color deserve to have the opportunity to make mistakes without facing these negative impacts.

“We want our children’s behavior to stop being seen as threat and being criminalized,” she said. “We actually want them to be seen as children and be afforded the same opportunities to make mistakes and the same opportunities to exhibit the same behavior as the other students and not expect to be penalized for it.”

District leadership said SUSD is committed to policies that promote the fair and equal treatment of all students.

But Broberg warned that a commitment to the overall concept of restorative justice and other interventions is not enough.

“The unfortunate part is (districts) try these interventions, but one of the things that you’ll notice is they don’t always follow a prescribed type of method, and so they kind of jump onto that bandwagon of things,” Broberg said.

Sackos said SUSD is using a trainer-of-trainer model through the International Institute for Restorative Practices to train teachers and administrators.

“Some of our campuses have had restorative practices in place,” Sackos said. “This became a district wide initiative and we began that training throughout the year.”

That training and implementation was cut short by the pandemic but the intention is take the program district-wide, Sackos said.

Broberg said it also important that districts track the success of these interventions using data, not just anecdotal evidence.

“They usually don’t track outcomes sufficiently to know whether they’re really effective or not,” Broberg said.

But Sackos said schools typically use the summer to look at disciplinary data to identify any issues with bias and discipline.

Experts and advocates said using that data to identify teacher bias – and providing implicit-bias training – is an important step to combating inequity in discipline.

“We’ve been demanding that the schools keep track of the reasons for the referrals,” Wood said. “Which teachers are giving out these referrals more often than not, so we can get down to the bottom of what’s going on with that classroom.”

Thiesen-Homer said districts should provide training to teachers so they know how to read that data in order to examine any biases they may exhibit in the classroom.

“I really hope that they are going to receive support, not in a punitive way, but in a way that helps them to better support all of their students,” she said.

It is still unknown if increased bias training will be incorporated into the SUSD’s new equity and inclusion model, which is still being developed.

“This is work that is not done in a month or a school year,” said Sackos, the superintendent leading the committee. “This is work that needs to be very intentional and purposeful and done over a period of time.”

New Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel said he plans to be a hands-on presence in developing the equity and inclusion model announced by his predecessor in June.

“I intend to be very involved in the process,” Menzel said. “Establishing a committee with diverse representation, both within the school system and in the larger community is important and a necessary first step but a committee by itself doesn’t represent action.”

At the moment, Sackos, said work began immediately this summer to reach out to students to learn more about their experiences and the change they would like to see.

Sackos said the district wanted to conduct that outreach with students in person but is using virtual platform due to the pandemic.

Wood said it is imperative that districts also engage with parents of color on these issues and give them the same opportunities to volunteer and be present on campus as other parents.

Sackos said the district plans to engage all stakeholders as it develops the model, including parents, teachers and community members.

One likely recommendation from the district’s equity committee will be that SUSD make a concerted effort to diversify its workforce.

“We have heard that from our students as well. That it’s very important to us,” said Sackos, who noted the district’s HR department is working to refine its hiring practices to meet that goal.

Wood said the Black Mothers Forum is pushing for districts around the state to hire more teachers of color.

SUSD Governing Board Vice President Patty Beckman also advocated for that goal at a board meeting in June.

“No longer can we afford to say there’s a teacher shortage and that we don’t have many educators of color applying,” Beckman said. “We need to go and find them; I want to hear that we are actively recruiting in areas and in ways that we don’t typically recruit in.”

But hiring those teachers is not enough, Wood said.

The district also has to ensure that supports are in place to “make sure the atmosphere is safe for them, so they can thrive,” she said.