District Discipline Handbook Review is Underway

  • Students review discipline handbook with Gary Spiller

    Led by Executive Director of Student Services Gary Spiller, parents, educators, students and ACLU partners are meeting to review our District Discipline Handbook with a goal of making sure it speaks to the future and not the past. The new Handbook will be ready by the start of school in Fall 2018.

    Presenter and audience at ACLU meeting ACLU-MO Continues a Community Conversation on School Discipline

    On April 10, 2018, more than 80 and parents, District employees and Board members along with other community members filed into the Jackson Park Elementary School gym, in The School District of University City, to take part in the “Navigating School Discipline Workshop” sponsored by the ACLU of Missouri (ACLU-MO), in partnership with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.

    This was the third in a series of meetings led by Mustafa Abdullah, lead organizer of the ACLU-MO, and designed to raise awareness about how discipline practices in schools across the nation unfairly target specific groups of students with harsher, more frequent and longer penalties. These punishments lead to lost time in school attendance, a critical factor in school success.

    According to Abdullah, the statistics detailed in the ACLU-MO report, “From School to Prison,” demonstrates the inordinate impact of such practices on students of color. “School districts are just now becoming aware of the issue and University City is unique in that they are willing to publicly take-on this sensitive topic,” Abdullah said. “University City school district is the first and only school district we are working with because administrators are intentional in efforts to keep students in school and to reverse the trend of inequities in punishments for disruptive behaviors.”

    The ACLU-MO staff was joined by the Legal Services team to help explain some of the intricacies of the State's school discipline policies and parents’ rights.

    The most recent research shows that African American students are disciplined more frequently than others and, unfortunately, more severely for the same offenses. Former University City student Kenya Brumfield-Young, paralegal and office manager of Legal Services’ Education Justice Program, said, “Data confirms that black and white students are not disciplined the same. The community needs to acknowledge these inequities and the trauma that these children and families are suffering.”

    Emily Hanson, ACLU-MO consultant, spoke to the results that she has compiled and shared with District administrators. “The information is from 2013-2014; the newer data for 2015 will be released this summer.” The Federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights collects data from school districts across the country. Hanson told the audience that anyone can look the information up at any time, but that when reviewing and releasing data, student privacy is the most important thing. She cautioned, “We tend to work with districtwide information in aggregate because when you start talking about individual schools, it becomes easier to identify students. Your children deserve their privacy.”

    Hanson says that statewide statistics on disciplinary bias show that during the 2013-2014 school year, African American non-IDEA students are nearly five times as likely to receive and out-of-school suspension compared to White students. African American IDEA students were over three times more likely to receive an OSS compared to White students.


    2013-14 Statewide Non-Idea Compare Population % to Suspension %   2013-14 Statewide Idea Compare Population % to Suspension %

    Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)



    2013-14 Non IDEA Population % and Suspension %   2013-14 IDEA: Population % and Suspension %

    Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

    Data suggests that in University City, the out-of-school suspension rate for African American students is out of proportion with enrollment even though they make up the majority of the student body. During the 2013-3014 school year, African American students, both with and without disabilities, were three times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension compared to their White peers.

    Pulling no punches, Superintendent of Schools Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, Ph.D., PHR, offered, “Our discipline data puts our district is in the top five of those showing implicit or explicit bias in how punishment is handled. It’s certainly not something to be proud of, but it’s important that we start discussions to better understand how we can best help students in our classrooms today.”

    Abdullah added, “The fact that University City school district administrators and board members are engaged in these meetings show that they are aware of bias and are working to reverse it.”

    Luz Maria Henriquez, managing attorney of Legal Services’ Education Justice Program, led the audience through the procedures for suspensions and expulsions to help them better understand their rights and how race factors in school discipline. Henriquez admitted the process can be difficult to interpret for educators and parents. “State statutes are not crystal clear. Ten different districts will interpret them ten different ways. And, it’s not always easy to get everyone on the same page,” she noted. “But the rights of students to access an education are rooted in Federal and State Constitutional law and statutes and there are procedures that districts must follow and protections that must be afforded to students before districts limit students’ access to an education.”

    Superintendent Hardin-Bartley said that common ground was the intent behind the District’s partnership with the ACLU-MO. She invited the ACLU-MO into the discussion last fall specifically to help with implicit and explicit bias. Implicit bias, meaning the thoughts or beliefs held on a subconscious level and explicit speaks to the thoughts and beliefs held consciously. According to Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, everyone has some degree of implicit bias, even those whose jobs require impartiality.

    “I wanted to bring these issues to the forefront in University City schools” said Hardin-Bartley. “We are looking for guidance to find ways to make parents and educators aware of the impact of lost school time and lost opportunities arising from discipline issues so that they can come together as community and find alternatives.” She admitted that the move is a bit unconventional. “You don’t typically invite the ACLU in – they sue you! They are typically on the other side of the issue! We are here because we need to do a much better job in ensuring that students get fair and equal treatment,” she said.

    Gary Spiller, executive director for Student Services and Innovation for University City Schools, said, “We are all accountable for ensuring that due consideration is given in every issue and in every hearing.” He added, “We are working on a number of fronts to reduce suspensions and we have not had an expulsion in University City in more than five years. In fact, none of our current administrative team was here at the time the data was collected. But, now that this information is in our hands, we are working diligently to see each issue under a new lens,” he said.

    Spiller spoke about Project Restore, a four-year, $1.7 million grant from St. Louis County Department of Public Health that University City shares with two other districts to implement restorative practices. “The District is aggressively seeking funds for mental health support for students, teachers and families – and we have acquired some amazing community partners for trauma and mental health supports including the wraparound services supported by Wyman,” he noted.

    “At this time,” Spiller said, “I consider University City a ‘trauma-aware’ district as we work aggressively toward being ‘trauma-informed.’ We are actively engaged in restorative practices that show promise. We provide interventions including counseling, but we cannot require young people to take counseling. It’s an option, but some of our parents consider the issues impacting a child’s success to be family matters. We are working through this.”

    Spiller added that one of the first projects arising from the ACLU partnership is support in retooling the District’s Discipline Handbook. “We are putting together a team to review, with the ACLU, the policies and language in our Handbook to ensure it supports student success and communicates information more effectively for today’s students and parents.”

    Hardin-Bartley reminded the audience that while the District is working to reduce suspensions, like all other districts across the State, University City is bound by the rules outlined in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE’s) Safe Schools Act. “Under the Safe Schools Act, our hands are tied in some cases, but the ACLU has a legal arm. As an example, we do not have discretion to consider Type 1 (serious) infractions. And, law enforcement has informed us of the fact that if they see an issue, they are ‘duty bound’ to expand to District property.”

    Henriquez noted that, “95 percent of the suspensions and expulsions are for non-violent offenses. Moreover, depending upon the issues, there is some discretion built into the Safe Schools Act for the superintendent, and districts must still follow the procedures legally required before suspending and expelling students.”

    Hardin-Bartley said, “Since we don’t have much latitude on the back-end, we are keeping the District’s focus on preventive measures and more restorative ways of handling these issues up-front.” Part of the strategy is contained in the District’s Learning Reimagined platform that encourages personalizing, humanizing and problem-solving all student interaction. “That means taking the whole student into consideration and working to find out what is behind the behavior,” she added.

    Board Director Kristine Hendrix asked, “If bias is so rampant in our state, our city, and our community, are there concrete policies or resources or best practices we can pull from?” “The answer,” Hanson said was, “Yes. We are compiling a handbook of success stories, which we will share as we move forward. In the meantime, I can guide you to resources online.”

    Following the meeting, Hanson observed, “It’s hard (for parents) to hear that real change could take as many as five years because they have students who are in school now.” She added, “The one thing that makes the most difference is uniting people around a common cause. It’s the only thing proven to work and the District is doing just that. Often when you are dealing with implicit bias, the best offense is a good defense.”


    Questions & Answers from the Workshop (some answered following workshop)


    • Mustafa Abdullah, Lead Organizer of the ACLU-MO
    • Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, PhD, PHR, Superintendent of Schools
    • Gary Spiller, Executive Director for Student Services and Innovation
    • Luz Maria Henriquez, Managing Attorney for the Education Justice Program
    • Kenya Brumfield-Young, Paralegal and Office Manager for the Education Justice Program

    What are the goals of these meetings?

    • Start a community discussion on implicit and explicit biases in school discipline
    • Increase awareness of inequities in the discipline process so that we can work together to reverse it
    • Support of the District’s initiative to reduce the number of suspensions overall
    • Learn to recognize and overrule implicit bias
    • Retool the Discipline Handbook

    How does the Alternative School fit into the discussion?

    Gary Spiller explained that the District has quality alternatives to educating students on suspension (University City has not had an expulsion in over five years) and yes, the Lieberman Learning Center is an option when there is an extended suspension. The LLC also helps those who are in need of social-emotional support and credit or academic recovery.

    My son is angry, sad, depressed, stressed out by school and he likes being at home. How do suspensions for smaller infractions solve discipline issues?

    Luz Maria Henriquez noted that suspensions are troubling because we know that suspensions are not effective in changing behavior and can have great negative impact on the lives of children. She recommended sending letters appealing suspensions and stressed the importance of being at hearings and in bringing all documentation and character references when possible.

    Are the rules the different for students with disabilities?

    Luz Maria Henriquez said all students can be suspended including those with disabilities. “Students with disabilities have the same rights as their non-disabled peers and have additional protections in place, but to be clear, those additional protections are not resulting in less suspensions for students with disabilities and in fact, students with disabilities are also disproportionately suspended.”

    What are the guidelines or best practices when interviewing students?

    Both parents should be involved when a Student Resource Officer is interviewing as that person is connected to the police. Luz María Henríquez explained that students can remain silent or, they can take the opportunity to give their side of the story. However, Henriquez said, “If law enforcement becomes involved and the student is in custody, then Miranda (‘You have the right to remain silent…’) warnings must be given.”

    If we are trying to build student trust, why would they not speak up in an interview?

    Mustafa Abdullah observed that the school board and administration were in attendance and is working on ways to build trust and to negotiate changes and encourage good behavior.

    Can we consider more positive reinforcement rather than negative from day one?

    Kenya Brumfield-Young agreed and said, “Yes, positive reinforcement is important as young people hear 10 negatives for every four positives every hour. We have to ask where behavior comes from. Where is the anger or fear coming from? What’s going on in the (student’s) world and how do we address it through the process?

    Click here for more information about ALCU earlier meetings including April 2017 report link.