In a scathing report, the Oklahoma Advisory Commission for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) said Oklahoma schools are in desperate need of reform when it comes to discipline.
The USCCR is an independent federal agency which studies civil rights in the U.S. in areas such as education.
According to the report Oklahoma students face a stark racial disparity when it comes to discipline. Black and Latino students are five times more likely to be given out of school suspension than white students.
Boys are two and a half times more likely to be suspended than girls. The disparity is creating what the report calls a school-to-prison-pipeline for a whole generation of students of color and students with disabilities according to the report.
“We shouldn't be surprised at what we see,” committee member Brian Corpening said. Corpening worked at a community college in Ferguson, MO for the better portion of a decade before coming to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Department.
“This whole school to prison pipeline is a result of our neglect. In terms of supporting teachers at the level they should be supported, giving kids what they need to be successful, helping them feel an excitement about learning rather than feeling that it's some type of drag or detriment to them,” He said.
The Committee points to several factors causing the disparity. Issues like student poverty, a teacher's implicit bias and exclusionary discipline policies already at work in schools are potentially driving students away from classrooms and into a jail cell, according to the report.
“They just basically drop out,” Corpening said. “The result of that is they them become engaged in the criminal justice system where they would go to prison.”
The same issues have been the focus of three civil rights lawsuits against Oklahoma City Public Schools since the mid-2000s. One of those suits was resolved in April with the district agreeing to a seven reform process. That suit pertained to similar allegations of racial disparity.
Despite the complaints, the investigation and the reforms, the district maintains the reforms aren't an admission of any wrongdoing.
The two other complaints open against the school allege the district is unfairly disciplining students with disabilities, alleging staff is suspending or expelling handicapped or challenged students more than non-disabled students.
The report says things like better racial training and recruiting along with discipline alternatives called restorative practices can help keep kids accountable without keeping them out of the classroom.
Corpening described restorative practices as punishments like community service or a holistic approach to counseling students in schools. However, statewide budget cuts have ended social worker programs within schools that one administrator called “vital” for reaching students from under-privileged families.
In a statement the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs (OJA) Spokesperson Paula Christiansen said. “The report confirms that it will take early intervention partnerships from educators, healthcare providers, community stakeholders and many others to successfully bend the curve for these kids prior to their entry into the criminal justice system. These kinds of preventative measures can help break the cycle of behaviors and conditions that we see generation after generation.”
OJA oversees the criminal youth in the state. Christiansen added OJA is working to ensure the office is providing necessary care to those they are responsible for. The Department of Education did not respond when asked for a comment Tuesday.