Black students punished more often than white students in Arkansas

On average, for every 100 black students, they receive 117 disciplinary referrals compared to 38 disciplinary referrals for every 100 white students in Arkansas. (KATV Photo)

The data is difficult to read and sparks a conversation equally as tough. Black students in Arkansas schools face punishment at a rate that far outpaces their white and Hispanic schoolmates.

According to numbers reported by Arkansas schools, for every 100 black students, they receive 117 disciplinary referrals. That's more than one disciplinary referral per student. Compare that to 100 white students who receive 38 disciplinary referrals.

"In some cases, they're receiving punishment 100 times what the other kids are, and that's a huge huge issue. [It tells you] that we have an issue with implicit bias and that our schools are not responding appropriately," said University of Arkansas professor, Dr. Johanna Thomas.

Dr. Thomas notes that black kids are also three-times more likely to be written up for disorderly conduct and four-times more likely to be written up for insubordination.

"When you've got thirty students and this set curriculum, it's easier to punish than it is to ask questions," said Dr. Thomas.

KATV asked Education Commissioner Johnny Key if the numbers imply that Arkansas schools are racist.

"I wouldn't call it racist. I think that there is an element of race that has come into play when you see disparities, but when you actually talk to the educators in those schools, they want to do better. They know how this impacts their communities," said Key.

One impact on the community is broken trust, according to Dr. Thomas.

"The trust with the schools is just gone. It's broken," said Dr. Thomas. "I do think that we would be better served if we just saw the problem, called it what it is and worked on a remedy."

"When we suspend our kids, often times, that's who is getting arrested and that's who is creating a problem," said Dr. Fitz Hill who sits on the Arkansas Board of Education.

Dr. Hill says the solution takes time.

"When a person comes into an office, there's no relationship. You're dealing with just what happened and you want to try to fix it, and we have to get away from that," said Dr. Hill.

Park Elementary School in Stuttgart is one of the schools with disproportionate discipline.

"These are the monthly reports that we go through and tally up and look at race and gender and those type of things," explained Principal Pam Dean as she showed KATV the disciplinary reports.

Principal Dean was surprised and disappointed by the numbers. She wanted better for her school because each number is a child in her school.

"We started just questioning ourselves about what have we done for that particular student," said Dean.

The school identified 23 students with the majority of the disciplinary referrals. The solution they came up with involved not just discipline but relationships and positive reinforcement. The 23 students each have a high school mentor who hangs out with them once a month. They also get monthly rewards for staying out of trouble, like time in a brand new game room and visiting the local airport. One month those students were taken to the high school to play football with the team.

Teachers and administrators are also going through the book, "The Will to Lead, the Skill to Teach," during staff meetings.

A new social worker is also helping lead the charge for change. They've started meeting parents on their terms, where they feel comfortable and opening up lines of communication. Often that means visiting them in their homes rather than summoning them to the school.

They found 19 of the 23 students come from single-parent households and many of those parents struggle to find the time to make it to the school for meetings so building around their schedule made a huge difference. They found 19 of the 23 students come from single-parent households. Many of those parents struggle to find time to make it to the school for meetings, so building around their schedule made a huge difference.

"There are things that we need to address and one of the bigger things is forming relationships," explained social worker Katie Henderson.

The change in the kids is dramatic. Disciplinary issues this year are down more than 30 percent, and in one case, a child with 23 absences the year before only missed four days this year.

While the change in the numbers is important, the change in Principal Dean is just as meaningful.

"We are just trying to do a better job of figuring out the best way for those students to learn and what supports that we need to provide for them. We're not perfect by any means, but I know that we are doing the work," said Dean.


After receiving several questions on the story, we have decided to include answers to the most common questions below.

1) What school districts were included in the data? Every school in every district in the state was included in the data. Each school is required to keep track of all disciplinary actions and report the numbers to the Office of Education Policy each year. The Office of Education Policy compiles the numbers and provides statistical analysis for use by the Department of Education.

2) How many black students vs. white students? Again, the numbers include every school in the state; however, the approximate percentage of black and white students in Arkansas schools is 20 percent black and 63 percent white, according to the Dept. of Education. The numbers in this report are not a product of a small sample of schools but are an average of every school in the state. This is the same data that the state Board of Education and the Department of Education uses to make policy decisions for our schools.

Below is an executive summary of the Arkansas Student Discipline Report that school board members were sent.

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