News 4 Investigates: Racial disparities in school discipline - KMOV.com

News 4 Investigates: Racial disparities in school discipline

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Surveillance footage of Hazelwood North Middle schooler Staci Washington being attacked in 2017. (Credit: KMOV) Surveillance footage of Hazelwood North Middle schooler Staci Washington being attacked in 2017. (Credit: KMOV)
NORTH ST. LOUIS COUNTY (KMOV.com) -

The videos are hard to watch; middle and high school students exchanging blows.

Some parents and advocates say that discipline for school fights is different depending on what the child looks like.

“They keep fighting the same kid, over and over, for what?” said Staci Washington.

Washington said she can't stand to watch surveillance video from inside Hazelwood North Middle School from last year. A girl on the video can be seen attacking Washington's daughter, whose identity News 4 has chosen to conceal.

“The video speaks for itself,” Washington told News 4.

Washington said it was far from the first time her daughter had been bullied at school.

“I was disgusted with the school district,” she said.

In a lawsuit filed against administrators at Hazelwood School District, Washington's lawyers outline multiple times they say Staci's daughter was attacked: In August 2016, twice in October that year and again in March 2017. 

Each time, Washington says she tried to get the school district to do something. She says she pointed outposts the other girls made, some that she says were entitled "adventures in fighting."

“Do you think the school district should have done more to prevent these fights?” asked Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager.

“Absolutely,” answered Washington. 

Instead of getting at the root causes and figuring out who was really responsible, according to the lawsuit, the school district suspended those involved after each fight, including Washington's daughter.

“How could you get an education when you are steady getting suspended from school?” Washington asked.

She believes the punishment was unfair and feels it's because of her daughter's race.

“I just feel like if it had been young black girls fighting young white girls, it wouldn't have been these incidents through the school year,” said Washington. “They didn’t care because it's black kids fighting black kids, why would they care?”

Washington's beliefs, according to legal experts like Luz Maria Henriquez, may be supported by startling statistics.

“I think her experience resembles what the data is saying is that there is disproportionality,” said Henriquez.

School discipline has historically come with disparities. National data from the Department of Education shows black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than white boys, often for the exact same offense.

New studies have recently broken the data down by gender. According to an ACLU study, black girls are six times more likely to receive out of school suspensions compared to white girls.

“It's really surprising to me that the target population is girls of color,” Henriquez said.

Henriquez, a lawyer with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, says school discipline can have life-long consequences.

“Study after study shows that girls who are suspended are more likely to be suspended again, they are more likely to drop out of school, more likely to repeat a grade, all of that is linked to the juvenile and then the criminal justice system," Henriquez said.

According to Henriquez, data also shows that black girls are the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system.

In fact, Staci's daughter was at first charged criminally for fighting, but the charges were later dropped.

“I wasn't going to allow my daughter to attend high school. The Hazelwood School District failed my child,” she said. 

The school district says they cannot discuss pending litigation but said in a statement, in part:

We take all student behavior incidents seriously and look at each one individually to determine the appropriate actions-punitive, corrective, and restorative.  

“If you are not involved, they are going to punish your kid, until they are pushed out,” Washington said.

Washington says her daughter is bubbly and social around her peers but was reserved around the News 4 crew.

She's had to get counseling, her mom says, in addition to being treated for concussions.

Washington says she wanted to speak out, to see changes in how school's dole out their discipline.

Recent studies show that part of the problem is that black girls are perceived as more adult-like than their peers and are disciplined more harshly as a result.

Henriquez says the federal Department of Education recommends using suspensions as a last resort, but in her experience, Missouri districts still adopt a more zero-tolerance approach, suspending all those involved instead.

Below is the school district's full statement:

We are all concerned whenever there is a student incident. However, we do give the administration the latitude to address the situation based on the many  factors  involved, including  the needs of the students, the specific details of the situation discovered when they investigate, and the overall impact on the school—both short and long term.  

Please know that we take all student behavior incidents seriously and look at each one individually to determine the appropriate actions—punitive, corrective, and restorative.   

We take a restorative approach when we can in order to provide a more long-term benefit to correcting the behaviors, so they do not repeat.  Restorative practices are more powerful than only such things as an out-of-school suspension.

Expectations for student behavior, supports, and interventions are addressed in the Hazelwood Student-Parent Handbook and Behavior Guide.  On page B-13, you can review the discipline procedures and due process.  The level of consequences, specific offenses by grade level, interventions, and supports begin on page B-24.  Here is the link to our board policy for student suspension and expulsion, which is aligned with the State of Missouri’s policy for public schools

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