MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Earlier this year, the Tennessee State Department of Education cited several school districts, including Shelby County Schools, for disproportionately disciplining students with disabilities.
Now, 11 months later we’re taking a closer look at the progress SCS is making in fixing that problem and the new approach they’re taking to keep more students in school.
Cellphone video captures the dramatic moment deputies arrest a man in a Memphis hotel ballroom. Stunned audience members look on as they place him in handcuffs.
“Are y’all serious?! Are y’all serious?! I mean really?!” the man yells as he’s hauled away.
It turns out, it's all part of Royal Chatman's presentation before an education conference on student truancy and dropout issues.
He wanted to show educators the consequences of kicking kids out of school and the life of crime that can follow.
Drugs landed Chatman in prison for 18 years. He now works to keep kids from following his path and says part of that means reaching out to school leaders.
"You just can’t kick them all out. You just can’t put them all out, expel them. No. You’ve got to work with these kids,” said Chatman.
It’s a message Chatman says he has shared with students and teachers at SCS, which was among 25 school districts the Tennessee Department of Education cited this year for disproportionately disciplining students with disabilities.
WMC Action News 5 wanted to take a closer look at that problem, so we searched through hundreds of student discipline data reports submitted by school districts to the state from the 2017-18 school year.
We found two SCS schools that highlight the bigger problem.
For instance, students with disabilities only made up one out of every six students at Geeter Middle School, yet they accounted for one out of every three students who were expelled that year, according to state data.
At Sheffield Elementary, only one out of every 16 students there had a disability, yet students with disabilities accounted for nearly half of students expelled there that year.
Aside from disproportionately disciplining students with disabilities, SCS in general has among the highest expulsion and suspension rates in the state when factoring in all students.
We wanted to know what the district is doing about both problems.
"Our students see violence in their communities and many times they bring this with them,” said Shawn Page, chief of operations for SCS.
Page says the district is changing its approach to how it disciplines students.
“Dr. Ray has been very intentional in how we support schools and teachers and students and for this year we’ve implemented what’s called social emotional learning,” said Page.
Also known as restorative practices, social emotional learning focuses on getting to and solving the root problems that might be making students misbehave.
It often includes one-on-one sessions.
Page says the district also started another initiative this year: A reset room.
“When a student is acting up, disrupting the learning environment for other students, we have a place that the student can go to get re-centered, calm down,” said Page.
This type of approach, which Page says SCS has been implementing over several years, is what educators from out of state told us they also recommend.
“We need to change as much as the kids need to change the way they're thinking,” said Tony Terry, a Louisiana school administrator.
"We have to pay attention to what our children are going through,” said Dona Mitchell, a Texas truancy expert and the current president of the International Association for Truancy and Dropout Prevention.
“This is not your grandfather's education system any longer,” said Ed Foster, another Louisiana school administrator and the former president of IATDP.
So far, this approach appears to be working in some areas. A May report from the district's research and management office shows fewer instances of students with disabilities being disciplined than a few years ago. And state data shows among all students in the district, the number who were suspended fell from about 21,000 to 16,000 in two years.
However, both state numbers and numbers the district provided to WMC Action News 5 show expulsions dipped but then increased in recent years.
Page says in a few cases, removing a student from class or from school is the best option.
“We don’t want to put children out,” said Page. “But if a child is truly disruptive to the learning environment doing serious threats or things, and yes, maybe they do need to be in an alternative setting.”
"Every day that a kid’s out of school, that’s a day they’re missing from learning,” said Sarah Carpenter, SCS grandparent.
SCS grandparent Sarah Carpenter, who leads a Memphis group that helps parents navigate the education system, agrees that SCS has made progress. She says the important thing to do now is to be patient.
“We didn’t get here overnight, and we can’t get out of it overnight,” said Carpenter.
The citation from the state requires SCS and other districts to redirect 15 percent of funds from the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” for coordinated early intervening services to address areas of disproportion.
SCS said it did not appeal and the funds were allocated in May for the 2019-20 school year.
Parents can look at the discipline rates for their child’s individual school through an online state report card.