Discipline discrepancy? Study examines exclusionary discipline practices in Ohio schools

May 14—LIMA — Finding a healthy balance when it comes to discipline for children can be difficult for parents, but schoolteachers and administrators also face that same dilemma when it comes to their students. A recent report from the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio asserts that schools in the state are using more exclusionary measures for student discipline, such as out-of-school suspension and expulsion, and that this is happening more frequently to minority and disadvantaged students. Researchers expressed concern that this trend is contributing to student absenteeism rates, a trend they say contributes to the state's "community-to-prison pipeline."

The Children's Defense Fund's 2024 State of School Discipline in Ohio report was released in March, examining the frequency and distribution trends of exclusionary discipline measures in Ohio public schools in the 2022-2023 school year. According to the report, suspensions and expulsions have been trending up in Ohio since 2010, rising from 11.9 occurrences per 100 enrolled students in 2010-2011 to 14.3 occurrences in 2022-2023. This upward trend has continued, the report said, despite the enactment of Ohio's SAFE Act in 2018, which prohibits such forms of discipline from being used on early learners.

When it comes to who is receiving this discipline, the report said that the frequency of punishment leaned toward minority students and students with disabilities and economic disadvantages. Black male and female students were, respectively, 4.3 times and six times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. Overall, Black students were disciplined at a rate of 39.7 occurrences for every 100 students in 2022-2023 compared to eight occurrences for white students. Disabled students had a disciplinary rate of 22.2 occurrences per 100 students. When looking at economic disadvantage, students in this category accounted for 174,000 occurrences that school year compared to 35,000 occurrences for students not considered economically disadvantaged, with 81 percent of expulsions affecting economically disadvantaged students.

"The discipline rates for Ohio's students are trending in the wrong direction, especially for our middle-school and high-school students and students of color," CDF Ohio state director John Stanford said in a statement.

Looking at Lima

According to the Ohio Department of Education, almost 64 percent of student enrollment consists of racial minority students, and 100 percent of the district qualifies as being economically disadvantaged, having an adjusted median gross income of less than $27,600. Chronic absenteeism was at 39 percent for the 2022-2023 school year, down from 41.5 percent the prior year and 43.2 percent in 2020-2021. While the district has many of the demographic indicators highlighted in the CDF report, Superintendent Jill Ackerman pointed to the numerous programs and initiatives the district is utilizing to avoid exclusionary discipline measures.

"We have some in-school intervention programs, and we also have what we call OSIP, which is out of school," she said. "So if a kid is recommended for expulsion in middle school or high school, we have an alternative location where they can attend and stay in school. They can come over to South and go to school here for a period of time in lieu of expulsion as long as the parent comes to the hearing and agrees to it."

Ackerman also pointed to the Movement Academy at Lima Senior, which also acts as an alternative placement to help students avoid expulsion. Placement in these programs is dependent, Ackerman said, on the severity of the behavior exhibited by the student.

"But 98 percent of the time, it's going to be offered as an option because of the low-level severity of the offenses," she said.

Placement in these environments can be helpful, Ackerman said, because they provide a smaller environment with a closer teacher-to-student ratio.

"There's a counseling component to all of it," she said. "The Spartan Health Clinic provides some counseling because they're in the high school. So there's a lot of extra support that they're giving to all of those kids."

Considering proportionality in discipline is something that is always on the minds of teachers and administrators, Ackerman said. An additional factor that needs to be kept in mind is what the child experiences outside of school, she said.

"It's bigger than just a school issue; it's a community issue," she said. "It's the haves versus the have-nots. Socioeconomic status matters, and we just want to work with families and parents and do everything we can."

That effort could mean partnering with outside agencies like Health Partners, which runs the Spartan Health Clinic, to help provide resources to at-risk students, be it physical, mental or emotional support. That could include everything from counselors to food distributions.

"When you start peeling back the layers and getting to the root causes, sometimes it is really telling as to the reason for the behavior," Ackerman said. "We don't believe there are any bad kids. We believe there are some that are misguided or need some extra reinforcement. It's a rare occasion when we say that we've tried every single thing and nothing's working."

Attempts to reach Bath, Elida and Perry schools for comment in time for publication were not successful.