Parents, educators fight back against rising suspension numbers

Portsmouth superintendent, newly-elected board member working to reduce highest suspension rates in Hampton Roads

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — More than 20,000 students across Hampton Roads received suspensions last school year, according to data obtained by 10 On Your Side.

Portsmouth Public Schools suspended the highest percentage of students in the region with roughly 17 percent of students receiving short-term out-of-school punishments.

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Virginia Beach City Public Schools suspended four percent of students, which is the lowest in the region.

Portsmouth isn’t the only problem district, but parents there are now fighting back because they believe suspended students are more likely to get in trouble.

In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union says suspended students are three times more likely to come in contact with the juvenile justice system. The controversial theory is called the school-to-prison pipeline. graphic-2

Newly-elected Portsmouth School Board member Lakeesha Atkinson is a believer.

“Go in any jail. Go in any prison. Ask an inmate, ‘When you were in school, have you ever been suspended?’ And they will say, ‘Yes, multiple times.'”

Data shows suspensions are on the rise in Portsmouth. In the 2013-2014 school year, 2,058 students got suspended. In 2015, the numbers went up by 200. Last year, the number of students suspended rose to 2,449.

Superintendent Dr. Elie Bracy, who took over the district two years ago, admits there’s a problem.

“We want to start seeing reductions in suspensions,” said Dr. Bracy. “We don’t want it to keep going in the upward trend it’s going now… I see too many days out of school and that’s too many days of students not learning and getting valuable instruction time.”

Dr. Bracy says there’s no exact science as to why the numbers are rising, but he says it’s possible newer and less tolerant teachers with less experience in classroom management skills are sending more kids to the principal’s office.

“If there is a fight or outright disrespect, chances are there will be a suspension,” said Dr. Bracy. “We are not going to tolerate any fighting in the schools. We are not going to tolerate outright disrespect to the teachers.”

Lisa McDonald says fighting is not the only reason kids are getting suspended. She says her son, now a senior, has been removed from class more than a dozen times, mostly for disruptive behavior. He’s now on the brink of another suspension for being late to class, she says.

Other parents report their children being suspended for cursing. Carl Burden, a grandparent, says policies on the books are outdated.

“Part of it is [the school’s] job to make sure that child is doing what they are supposed to be doing in school,” said McDonald. “Don’t throw them to the wayside because you think they are a problem child… You have to get to the root of what’s going on with some of these children.”

Out of frustration, McDonald and Burden joined Virginia Organizing, a grassroots group that is working with parents and the district to come up with solutions.

10 On Your Side dug deeper into the numbers and discovered a hidden problem: Repeat offenders. Every district faces the same issue.

In Newport News, 3,636 students accounted for 7,028 suspensions last year. In Portsmouth, 2,449 students accounted for nearly 5,000 suspensions.

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“We just don’t have that different approach,” said Atkinson. “Some would come back and say the budget doesn’t call for different approaches. We can come up with budget-friendly alternatives.”

Atkinson says students could potentially volunteer for nonprofit organizations after school instead of missing class. She also plans to recommend a program that uses retired teachers as mentors.

“What are we teaching the kids by having them miss a whole day of school?” asked Atkinson, who has already called for a review of the student code of conduct.

Atkinson says a big reasons she ran for school board was to help lower the district’s suspension numbers, and she plans on being outspoken until there’s progress.

“I feel like I have the city on back and that’s fine,” she said. “I’m going to go and do what I said I was going to do.”

Three bills have been introduced in the state legislature to address school discipline. One of them, if approved, would ban the suspension of kids from pre-K to fifth grade. Last year in Hampton Roads, administrators suspended more than 4,000 elementary students.