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Local superintendents question motivation, efficacy of House suspension/expulsion measure

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Suspensions and expulsions

Some local superintendents say they have put together a plan to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions among black and special education students, but there are other factors they can't control that challenge their efforts.

House Bill 1421, which the House passed unanimously on Monday, directs the Indiana Department of Education to develop plans and work with local schools to reduce the number of students subjected to out-of-school suspension or expulsion. According to IDOE, nearly 10 percent of Hoosier students were suspended or expelled during the 2016-17 school year.

Legislators want school districts to develop a discipline-improvement plan to avoid suspensions and expulsions.

The measure is set to go to the Senate early next week.

Several area superintendents expressed concern that legislating the reduction of expulsions and suspensions still won't solve problems they see as rooted in outside circumstances ultimately beyond their control.

The School City of Hammond, which has the largest number of suspensions and expulsions and is the largest school district in Northwest Indiana with 13,868 students in the 2016-17 school year, had 3,890 students who received out-of-school suspensions and 192 students who were expelled.

That means more than 28 percent of students enrolled in the district received an out-of-school suspension, but less than 2 percent were ultimately expelled.

Hammond schools Superintendent Walter Watkins said Tuesday the district has been cited a number of times by the Indiana Department of Education for those issues. He said there are disproportionately more African-American students, particularly male, and more students in special education, who have been suspended or expelled.

"Over the years, we have been mandated by the state to take some of the money generated by special education funding to provide some kind of intervention to prevent and reduce those numbers," he said.

"We have had a variety of programs and training sessions take place at the district to address those issues."

"For some reason, I think it's because of our demographics, we are having a challenging time getting those numbers down regardless of the programs we put in place. We are now looking at some additional interventions we can put in place to reduce those numbers.

"I don't know if anything can be done legislatively. So much of what happens in schools and classrooms is the result of a variety of things over which we have no control. For example, I continually tell people that we have social issues, cultural issues and climate issues that all play a role in the school environment, yet the school is held the most accountable in trying to adjust those issues," Watkins said.

Munster schools Superintendent Jeffrey Hendrix echoed Watkins' sentiments. Hendrix said student and teacher behavior cannot be legislated.

"The focus should not be on limiting suspensions and expulsions, but finding ways to help our students socially and emotionally cope with behaviors that are causing them to misbehave that leads to suspensions and expulsions," he said.

Hendrix said educators need legislators to support professional development programs that help teachers work with students who are struggling in school. He said Munster has some alternative programs and options that are used with students who are not successful in regular school settings, but they cost money.

"My question to the Legislature is how this particular bill will change student behavior or teacher behavior moving forward without classroom supports, counseling supports and financial supports?" he said.

Valparaiso schools Superintendent Ric Frataccia said district expulsions are actions the school takes for weapon possession and distributing substances.

In 2016-17, according to IDOE, 413 students received out-of-school suspensions, and six were ultimately expelled in the Valparaiso school district.

"We try to employ (actions) as an alternative to out-of-school expulsions in an effort to provide the child with an opportunity to remediate him/herself," Frataccia said.

"Expulsion is not an action that I or my team look forward to, but unfortunately there are behaviors that a small percentage of students manifest that compromises or interferes with others and/or the effective operation of the school. I am not exactly sure what motivated the Legislature's interest in this matter."

Region school suspensions and expulsions, 2016-17 school year

The "INCIDENTS" columns refer to the total number of incidents in the respective column, i.e. total number suspension and expulsion cases by school district.

The student categories refer to the total number of students who were involved in those respective incidents. In some cases, individual students were suspended more than once, leading to a difference between the incident and student totals.

Source: Indiana Department of Education

Field 1 Field 2 Field 3 Field 4 Field 5 Field 6 Field 7
Hanover Community School Corp 8 6 147 100 2 2
River Forest Community Sch Corp 1 1 268 160 0 0
Merrillville Community School Corp 1825 1054 1644 986 24 24
Lake Central School Corporation 44 42 496 318 6 5
Tri-Creek School Corporation 4 4 134 106 1 1
Lake Ridge New Tech Schools 0 0 702 367 0 0
Crown Point Community School Corp 934 451 342 222 27 27
School City of East Chicago 44 37 1559 797 6 6
Lake Station Community Schools 0 0 297 152 0 0
Gary Community School Corp 6 6 1282 784 0 0
Griffith Public Schools 722 354 320 202 22 19
School City of Hammond 6516 2655 3890 2009 192 180
School Town of Highland 160 86 143 109 9 9
School City of Hobart 749 352 462 256 2 2
School Town of Munster 191 123 136 103 0 0
School City of Whiting 345 178 298 174 29 29
Gary Lighthouse Charter School 0 0 159 124 0 0
21st Century Charter Sch of Gary 203 127 312 190 5 5
East Chicago Urban Enterprise Acad 41 31 95 45 0 0
Thea Bowman Leadership Academy 3 3 363 213 0 0
Hammond Academy of Science & Tech 71 62 56 51 0 0
Gary Middle College 0 0 42 27 0 0
Steel City Academy 0 0 203 82 3 3
Charter School of the Dunes 367 145 71 54 0 0
M S D Boone Township 47 38 37 26 0 0
Duneland School Corporation 410 243 603 338 12 12
East Porter County School Corp 68 56 76 51 2 2
Porter Township School Corp 38 29 38 29 1 1
Union Township School Corp 51 43 53 40 1 1
Portage Township Schools 878 516 686 434 14 14
Valparaiso Community Schools 372 216 413 220 6 6
Michigan City Area Schools 19 14 2428 1029 38 37

Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.