Palm Beach County schools have seen their out-of-school suspension rate drop by 25 to 30 percent this year, and Superintendent Wayne Gent said Monday he hopes to cut it even further.
Put on the spot by the community group People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, Gent agreed to have the nation’s 11th-largest district set a goal of having no school with an rate of more than 10 percent.
“That’s a very challenging goal,” Gent allowed after he was applauded for agreeing to it by many in the crowd of about 2,000 at the South Florida Fair Expo Center.
In the 2010-2011 school year, the district had several schools with suspension rates of 30 percent or higher — meaning that, in some cases, a third of the student body was suspended at least once.
“We’re robbing them of their right to an education,” said Edith Tucker of Belle Glade, who told the group her son was suspended for three days in middle school for chewing gum in the halls.
The district has been overhauling its discipline policies and recently updated its student code of conduct to try to correct behavior problems before resorting to punishment.
The changes were sparked in part by a 2009 settlement with civil rights groups over complaints the district was too often suspending emotionally or behaviorally disabled students. The district also has settled with the U.S. Department of Justice after a probe into its suspensions of students who struggle to speak English.
Gent credited the district’s efforts for this year’s drop in suspension rates.
“I look forward to looking for solutions with you,” Gent told the crowd.
The PEACE event came the same month that the California-based Civil Rights Project released a new study looking at suspensions at more than 26,000 middle schools and high schools nationwide.
That study estimated that one out of every nine secondary school student was suspended at least once during the 2009-2010 school year, often for minor infractions.
It also found that suspension rates for certain groups has grown disproportionately between 1970 and now. For instance, it said the suspension rates for black students increased 12.5 percentage points in those three decades, compared with only a 1.1 percentage point jump among white students.
The study was co-written by Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for CivilRights Remedies at the California-based CivilRightsProject. Losen was also a co-writer on a 2010 study that found that Palm Beach County ranked No. 1 among 18 large, urban school districts nationwide in how often they suspended black male middle school students in 2006.
The study mentions the Justice Department settlement with Palm Beach County, saying it “offer(s) concrete examples of viable changes that any district can undertake.”