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Zero Tolerance

The Richmond Public Schools suspend more students than they graduate. Some say the system's biggest problem isn't the students — but an unwillingness to teach them.

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On track to graduate from Armstrong High School next year, Davon Grant is a Richmond Public Schools success story.
But success didn't come easy for Grant, and his mother, Priscilla Artis Grant, wonders at the price paid to get her 17-year-old back on track. Known to his middle school teachers for his quick lip, he earned regular suspensions, unwanted attention from administrators and eventually a stint at the Capital City Program, Richmond's controversial, private, alternative education disciplinary school.

“We're looking for colleges now,” Priscilla Grant says. She's thankful that a last-chance program like Capital City Program was there, but she wishes Richmond's school system relied less on a privately operated alternative program to fix its most broken students.

What's broken doesn't always get fixed in Richmond, where only slightly better than half of the city's students graduate. Three of Grant's older sons weren't as lucky as their brother. They dropped out, frustrated after frequent run-ins with authority led to suspensions that left them too far behind in the classroom.

Grant blames a system that she says pays plenty of attention to at-risk youth — mostly by suspending them — and by getting involved only when they've crossed the legal line.

“They just put him out of school,” Grant says, ruminating over how another of her sons was treated. “Another black child out of the system — it gives them a break.”

Bitter parents are a dime a dozen, but Grant's complaints are part of an ongoing and disturbing trend in the Richmond Public Schools. It's acknowledged by school leaders, parents, law-enforcement officials, and city and state politicians. Out-of-school suspension is too often used to discipline students, many of them say.

Even with the implementation of a Richmond Police program four years ago aimed at lowering the city's soaring truancy rate, out-of-school suspension remains a common punishment for students caught skipping school. And until recently, at some schools, suspensions were even meted out for being tardy to class. By sending students home from school, often to unsupervised homes, critics say, the situation often turns from a simple school matter to society's big problem.

“The whole issue of suspensions, truancy and dropouts is very relevant,” says Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring, whose office works with the city's Cooperative Violence Reduction Partnership, an effort between various branches of law enforcement, social services and community programs seeking to tamp down truancy.

It's not easy, he says, in a city where three-quarters of the students live below the poverty level, and where education is sometimes undervalued.

“We see the highest incidents of truancy between the ages of 14 and 17,” Hicks says — “right at the point where kids are concluding that the school curriculum is irrelevant to them.” With truancy comes increased dropout rates — and crime.

Herring says out-of-school suspensions aren't that much different than truancy. Absent with permission, he says, is still absent.

“With relief to the school, there is an increased probability that the kid will offend on the street,” Herring says. “Do you roll the dice that the community can absorb the kind of crime the child commits?”

Recent Richmond Police data obtained by Style Weekly shows a direct correlation between truancy and criminal activity. Using information on students in one city schools program, the department found hundreds of crimes committed by students with a prior record of truancy. Attempts to determine how many of those committing crimes were on suspension, however, has been difficult. School officials have been unwilling to provide student data to Richmond Police, sources say. With or without the data, Herring says it isn't difficult to see the correlation between suspensions and criminal activity.

That leads to a bigger question: Who is really responsible when a child commits a crime? If he's committed an offense while suspended, some people argue that the school district has abdicated responsibility for the child, foisting the burden onto a family — often a single-parent household where missing a day of work can be devastating.

There were 5,304 reported suspensions in city high-schools during 2006-'07, according to Richmond Public Schools data. There are some signs of improvement, according to data obtained after a Style Weekly Freedom of Information Act request. (See sidebar page 18.)

District-wide for all Richmond schools during the 2006-'07 school year, suspensions were meted out at least 13,500 times, according to figures supplied to School Board members last year. That's only slightly less than half of the total number of disciplinary referrals handed out to students for all offenses — from fighting to bringing a cell phone to school — according to data collected by the Virginia Department of Education.

State figures for the same indicate Richmond suspension rates may be far higher -- more than double.

Recent school-provided figures for the same year show about 300 fewer suspensions, but based on state data, suspensions in the city may also have been higher during the 2006-'07 school year. Using the more conservative data, there were half as many suspensions as there were students — the Richmond Public Schools have 24,000 students — during that period, a number that exceeds nearly every other school district in the state. Nearly 5,200 suspensions were for attendance infractions like truancy or tardiness.

Translation: Nearly half of all discipline referrals ended in a child being sent home with a suspension for at least one day, and often longer. Often, the punishment was the same as the crime.

Richmond's acting school superintendent, Yvonne Brandon, acknowledges that suspensions are overused. “Regardless of whether it's 13,000 or 5,000 or 2,000 [suspensions],” she says, “it's too many. Which means it demands our attention.”

Brandon says there are new programs at many schools aiming to reduce suspensions. She points to a new training partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University targeting teachers as well as students in an attempt to modify behaviors. “We have found you have to work on both sides of the equation,” Brandon says. “But the programs are not as widespread through the district as I would like.”

The use of out-of-school suspension has been somewhat mitigated recently, according to Sarah Geddes, an attorney with the statewide advocacy group Just Children, run by the Legal Aid Justice Center. The program signed a memorandum of understanding with the Richmond schools during the last year — forestalling a potential lawsuit against the school district — to better provide for proper disciplinary handling of special-education students.

“[Richmond] is doing some good things around discipline,” Geddes says of recent efforts. But her group's agreement with Richmond extends only to special-education students — meaning they're not advocates for the broader population.

Geddes says suspensions are a statewide problem. “In 2006-'07, there were over 18,500 suspensions for attendance problems,” she says, citing more than 2,000 short-term suspensions in Richmond alone related to lateness or truancy.

Add 5,182 reported truancies during the same year, and that's a lot of kids not in school. And it most certainly added a burden to the docket at the Oliver Hill Courts Building, says former Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Chief Judge Kim O'Donnell.

“As a judge, I can pretty confidently tell you that they were punished for truancy by being put out of school,” says O'Donnell, who retired two years ago. She saw other disturbing things, too, often involving school officials skirting rules and even the law in disciplining students — such as sending students home for 10 days without a disciplinary hearing, which is required by state law.

Despite this, O'Donnell says, the problem is not the Richmond schools' fault. With limited resources, the school system has seemingly unlimited burdens being placed on it by the state to show improvements on standardized testing and other slimly funded mandates.

“It's not that it's the schools', quote-unquote, fault, because there are a lot of good people trying to work. … but on a macro level, it reveals our failure to create an education system that deals with the children in our community,” she says. “That doesn't make it OK, that there are good people functioning within a broken system.”

There are attempts being made to fix that system — Herring's program, for instance. Or the Richmond Police Department's anti-truancy task force that works with schools.

Or even the Capital City Program, better known as CCP, which helped rescue Davon Grant. But none of these programs — least of all Capital City Program — is a magic bullet.

In fact, CCP may simply be misunderstood by some city officials.

In an editorial column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch the day before his swearing-in, Mayor Dwight C. Jones wrote that “last year, the CCP was Virginia's only disciplinary alternative school to achieve state accreditation under the SOL program — and it has done so again in 2008.”

The statement is technically true, but trying to compare CCP's state accreditation to other Department of Education-accredited schools is like comparing apples to bananas — the two fruits aren't even the same shape.

CCP is accredited using what the state calls an “alternative accreditation plan,” according to Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle.

In fact, the school is nowhere near meeting accreditation standards that are applied to other state schools — rather, the school's alternative accreditation is analogous to the state giving the school a 30-yard head start in a 50-yard dash. Unlike other schools in which state accreditation requires 70 percent of students to pass SOLs in four areas of study, CCP's success is based on a complicated formula. When all the calculations are done, fewer than 60 percent of students pass only two of the four areas of study.

The fact that it has the success it does — ensuring that students who were sent there for the required 180-day program often go on to graduate and even attend college — is plenty to justify Jones's proposed investment to build the school a new building, says Kirk Schroder, a lawyer and former president of the Virginia Board of Education, who also represents CCP.

Schroder acknowledges that the program isn't a cure-all. Only about 350 of the school system's students make it through the tiny program in a given year. In a system that sees fit to suspend more than 13,000 students every year, CCP simply isn't big enough.

“When you are in a division like Richmond that has a significant population of students that have discipline or behavior problems, it becomes even more challenging,” Schroder says, calling it a “vicious cycle” in which parents, schools and government are all equally ill-equipped to address the root problem.

But he says simply suspending students isn't the answer.

Marnica Wright is another parent that doesn't like Richmond's over-reliance on suspensions as a solution to difficult discipline issues.

Her 17-year-old daughter, Roquita, recently began acting out. Wright says she's been unable to get the Richmond schools to help. Instead, the district suspended Roquita — who Wright says has been an A and B student throughout her schooling — and given her the opportunity to flirt with disaster. While suspended, and while Marnica was working and unable to monitor her, Roquita ran afoul of the law at least twice. She was caught shoplifting at Wal-Mart (she wasn't prosecuted), and on another occasion police escorted her off school grounds at George Wythe. The offense? She returned to school while serving a suspension.

“I don't think it should be necessary for her to get in that much trouble before they can help her,” Wright says, though she only faults the Richmond schools for not having found an answer to what she knows is a nearly impossible question. “I think they just don't have a backup system. … for the kids who fall in between.”

Newly elected School Board Vice-Chairwoman Kim Gray is friends with Wright, and she feels her friend's pain.

“We definitely need to re-examine our approaches to suspension,” she says, calling the punishment a short-term reward for the child that has dire consequences in the long run. Suspension, she says, “is not going to make them want to come to school.”

Like her friend, Gray says the kids being failed by the system are the kids in the middle — the ones not bad enough for CCP, but bad enough to cause unfair disruptions in class that penalize other students.

“There's no intervention whatsoever” for those students on the margins, Gray says, proposing an oft-talked-about but seldom-implemented solution: “I think we need to build better relationships with social services, the health department, take a holistic approach to our students. [Often] if a child doesn't show up for school, it [is] because … there were deeper issues. Especially when you're dealing with a demographic with high concentrations of poverty, you almost have to know the family personally to get to the real issue and address it.”

It seems so simple — the idea of integrating key resources like social and health services in the one building where every parent and child has to go — but it's a pipe dream, Delegate Frank Hall, D-Richmond, says. He's a member of Mayor Jones's transition team and a longtime proponent of programs to stem school truancy and dropout issues.

“We simply have not been willing to produce the funds to do it,” Hall says of budgetary and bureaucratic hurdles that make it almost impossible to sell such a plan. “I don't blame the schools themselves. I blame the policymakers. I blame those of us who are privileged to not only make public policy, but are also responsible for funding it.”

Hall's efforts to improve education for at-risk students began nearly two decades ago with a joint legislative study committee he headed with former State Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III.

In October, the Virginia Commission on Youth released a report on truancy and dropout prevention— the latest iteration of Hall's ongoing efforts — that attacked the use of suspensions and recommended their use “only for most dire disciplinary infractions.”

It's unclear whether the report will have any impact on the General Assembly session that started last week. And while the report offers suggestions, Hall says, it's “pretty clear that there's no simple answer — there's no silver bullet that's going to fix it.

“And if I knew the answer,” he says, with a wan smile of someone who knows the question all too well, “I'd be paid a whole lot of money.” S

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