Nearly 200 students demonstrated outside North Division High School for Black Lives Matter at School Week in 2019. Three years later, MPS reports that despite making up around 50% of students, Black students account for around 80% of suspensions. Allison Dikanovic / NNS file photo
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Despite making up 50% of the Milwaukee Public Schools student body, Black students have received 81% of suspensions this school year, according to data presented to the Milwaukee Board of School Directors on Tuesday.

Latino students accounted for 13% of suspensions while making up 28% of the student population. White students accounted for 3% of suspensions while comprising 10% of students. Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander students each accounted for 1% or fewer of suspensions.

District schools have issued about 10,500 suspensions during the 2021-22 school year, according to monthly reports submitted to the board of school directors. 

Fighting, disorderly conduct and “chronic disruption or violation of school rules” have accounted for 64% of the nearly 8,900 total suspensions through Jan. 31, omitting September’s data, which did not break down reasons for suspensions. The same three reasons accounted for about 65% of the 7,100-plus suspensions of Black students during the same timeframe, omitting September.

Black students received about 82% of the roughly 1,500 reported suspensions for “chronic disruption or violation of school rules.”

Earl Arms, an MPS spokesman, said: “Overall our suspensions have gone down across the board for all behaviors and racial groups. As a total of all suspensions, it continues that 80% of all suspensions are written for Black students. That disproportionality can vary by school and behavior over that time period.”

Following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights that found that the district had disproportionately suspended or expelled Black students over two school years, MPS has submitted annual reports on its disciplinary data to the office.

The district also began reporting monthly suspension data to the board of school directors following a resolution in September 2020.

The federal investigation examined data from the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years and found that Black students, who made up about 55% of the student population, accounted for about 80% of suspension and expulsions. 

Those disparities persisted this year even as total suspensions dipped in January during the district’s pandemic pivot to virtual learning. 

All MPS schools operated virtually from Jan. 4 through Jan. 14. Total suspensions in January, as well as the number of suspensions of Black students, were roughly half of the average of each of three months, from September through December. 

Virtual learning is more accommodating of behaviors that are otherwise threatening to staff or other students, Arms said. Those behaviors can be dealt with in other ways. Therefore, he said, they “do not result in suspensions at the rate as behaviors do while all students are learning in person.”

The district report also highlighted alternatives to suspension, including “administrative counsel.” 

Black students comprised about 81% of more than 7,000 students referred to administrative counsel so far this year.

Historical context

The Milwaukee school board required MPS to report monthly on discipline in 2020, more than two years after it forged an agreement with the federal Department of Education to address racial disproportions in discipline — by offering alternatives to suspension, holding informational sessions for parents and community members and establishing student committees to offer input on policies. 

Some schools have successfully reduced suspensions. At a presentation to the school board’s Parent and Community Engagement Committee in January, the district highlighted efforts at Audubon Middle and High School, also known as Audubon Technology and Communication Center.

The school formed a student committee to help staff craft disciplinary policy.

The committee prompted changes to the school’s cell phone policy, which reduced suspension referrals by nearly 30%, Audubon principal Leon Groce told the school board.

Through last December, the majority-Latino school tallied 309 total suspensions, compared to 962 during the 2017-2018 school year through December. Groce said students drove that change. 

“When we invite (student voices) to the table, it does make a difference,” Groce said. “We are proud to say that we are making strides in the right direction.”

MPS said that all 30 middle and high schools have a student discipline committee that meets monthly.

A version of this story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Sam Woods / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Sam Woods is a staff reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, primarily covering education in Milwaukee. After moving to Milwaukee, Sam served as a City Year mentor at South Division, followed by a year with Public Allies at Ex Fabula. Sam also has a background in podcasting, and serves as the Director of Content at Bridge the City podcast.