Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, director of Latinos Unidos Siempre, speaks during a protest outside of the Salem-Keizer school district offices on Thursday, June 18 to urge the district to cancel their contract for police officers in schools. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Black, Latino and other students of color are more likely to be suspended and expelled from local schools than their white peers - and the racial gaps in school discipline have persisted for years despite a superintendent who has made equity her guiding priority for Salem schools.

During the 2018-19 school year, Latino students in the Salem-Keizer School District were expelled 76 times and suspended from school 1,938 times. In total, Latinos accounted for 47% of district expulsions and suspensions, despite being 41% of the student body, according to a Salem Reporter analysis of district data obtained through a public records request.

White students, who make up 47% of Salem-Keizer, were expelled 54 times during the same year, one-third of all expulsions.

Black students are just 1% of the student body, so a handful of suspensions or expulsions can shift numbers significantly. But in the four years of data Salem Reporter reviewed, they had the highest expulsion rate of any racial or ethnic group in the district, ranging from 2.5% to almost 7% of all expulsions.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The district’s discipline practices are getting renewed attention now as a coalition of community groups representing students and parents of color push to remove police from schools and otherwise address disparities.

“We’ve been ignored until recently,” said Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, director of Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth organization which has led the call for reform.

She said police in schools, who can arrest students, and discipline, which is the purview of teachers and administrators, are both part of a “system of policing” that pushes students of color into the juvenile justice system rather than educating them.

Both school administrators tasked with setting policies and reviewing data and the groups pushing for change agreed the disparate rates are a problem. They say the school system isn’t adequately educating or serving students of color.

Superintendent Christy Perry and other top administrators have attempted to address that gap by hiring more teachers and administrators of color, training behavioral staff on restorative practices and hiring mentors for Black and Pacific Islander students, a move that helped boost graduation rates to historic highs.

But in an interview this week, Perry said she now realized she could have done more sooner to tackle disparities in discipline while working on larger cultural changes.

“I also understand why our communities of color and our kids feel frustrated at this moment, because it hasn’t been quick enough, fast enough,” she said.

Many pushing for change say that recent conversations with Perry and assistant superintendent Iton Udosenata are the first time they’ve seen indications that the district is willing to address school discipline and policing systemically, rather than making small changes to individual policies.

“This is the first time in all my years when I can honestly say I see the possibility of some change,” said Levi Herrera-Lopez, director of Mano a Mano, who has advocated for the district to rethink its approach to discipline since the 1990s.

School discipline

The problem isn’t unique to the Salem-Keizer district. Across Oregon, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and Native American students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than their white and Asian peers, according to data released annually by the Oregon Department of Education.

“There is disproportionate discipline based on race amongst our students and we’ve got to do a better job of fixing that,” said Spencer Lewis, director of policy services for the Oregon School Boards Association.

Bringing a gun to school results in an automatic expulsion under state law, but Lewis said that’s the only consequence spelled out by statute.

The manner of disciplining students is largely left up to local school administrators, who can take widely varying approaches both in what leads to discipline and what consequences students face. Lewis said the association is reviewing whether policy changes might be effective in reducing discipline rates for students of color.

Salem-Keizer policy lists 14 offenses students that can result in discipline, ranging from tardiness to selling drugs or bringing a weapon to school.

The Salem-Keizer School District's discipline referral form.

Each comes with a list of progressive consequences, typically starting with contacting parents and progressing to suspension, expulsion or a referral to law enforcement. A first offense should start with a lesser penalty, with more serious consequences for repeat actions, the policy says.

Teachers and administrators generally are left to decide on their own when to act, although district guidance says they should consider the student’s history of behavior, the severity of the conduct and any mitigating circumstances.

A student facing expulsion gets a hearing with school officials to make their case for remaining in school.

Several offenses are defined broadly, particularly “insubordination,” which includes not following a teacher’s directions, rudeness or “disruption of any classroom, school or district-sponsored activity.”

“We (have) so many suspensions here when teachers or principals decide that talking back is like verbal assault,” said Annalivia Palazzo-Angulo, executive director of the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, a Latino parent organization formed 20 years ago in response to concerns about how Latino students were treated in schools.

In practice, those pushing for change said the system is nearly guaranteed to create disproportionate discipline based on race because teachers and building administrators have wide latitude to interpret student actions as aggressive or insubordinate.

A common theme in student stories is a feeling that educators, who are majority white, are more likely to see white students as needing help or having a bad day. Similar behavior by Black and brown students is seen as criminal, whether it’s tardiness to class or violating school dress codes.

Ramon France, a North Salem High School freshman, testified at a December 2019 school board meeting he got in trouble in a math class for trying to help a friend by explaining a concept in Spanish.

“My teacher told me it was an English math class and English had to be used,” France said. “Your policy says one thing. Students like me aren’t receiving justice or equity.”

Diana Aguilar, a 23-year-old Salem-Keizer graduate and mother of a second-grade student, testified about a similar pattern at the same meeting.

“I remember seeing my white peers be offered counseling services, amongst other services, while we were directed to the school police officer, put on probation or told we were no longer welcome at our school,” she said.

The general nature of disciplinary policies means that different teachers and different schools may handle the same behavior very differently.

“It’s very difficult to address when each principal has their own way of doing things,” Herrera-Lopez said.

Cynthia Richardson, director of equity, access and advancement with Salem-Keizer School District. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Some teachers and district administrators share that assessment, including Cynthia Richardson, Salem-Keizer’s director of equity, access and advancement. She said many administrators and teachers want to do better at reducing the disparities, and more than ever have reached out to her in recent months seeking help changing school culture.

But white educators still have blind spots around students from other cultures that can cause them to see those students as misbehaving, she said.

“The majority of our staff is white. The majority of them have not dealt with or worked with the cultures that they are having to teach. They don’t understand the need and why students behave or why they bring their cultural characteristics to the classroom,” she said.

Problems in the system

Benny Williams, president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP, said discipline is just one area where African-American students have not been well-served in local schools. By nearly every measure of student success, from elementary school reading to graduation and dropout rates, Black students in Salem-Keizer and across Oregon perform worse than their white peers.

“Historical bias and the lack of assistance for these students has contributed to disproportionality of discipline,” he said in an email.

He said when kids don’t hit educational metrics, like reading by third grade, they’re more likely to become disengaged in middle and high school.

“If kids aren’t proficient by the time they’re in 3rd grade … by the time they get into high school they’re going to have lots of difficulties,” he said.

School discipline also contributes to higher arrest rates for Black students, he said, because a kid who’s suspended or expelled is more likely to get in trouble during the day because they’re not at school.

Students organized by Latinos Unidos Siempre urged the new Salem-Keizer School Board to address the mental health needs of immigrant students and stop policies that disproportionately punish students of color at a July 2019 meeting. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The progressive discipline system also means one biased teacher can impact a student years after they’ve left that classroom or school, a point many Latinos Unidos Siempre students have shared in school board meetings and conversations with district leaders.

Alex Sosa-Navarro, a student organizer for Latinos Unidos Siempre, said the record of a violation in elementary school influences how teachers see and respond to behavior from a student for years after.

“That record stays with you throughout middle school and high school,” he said. 

School officials look back at a student’s record when there is a new violation, with a prior history of trouble leading to sometimes more serious consequences.

If a student is on probation in juvenile court, schools often contact the student's probation officer if a student is disciplined at school, said Troy Gregg, director of Marion County Juvenile Department. Depending on the issue, a school report could lead to a probation officer reviewing the student's case.

Richardson said she’s heard testimony from several students in recent weeks who have been on juvenile court probation for most of their time in public schools, which she sees as a failure to help the child in question.

“What can you do in the third grade to still cause you to be on probation by the time you’re in the 11th grade?” she said.

What’s been done

Salem-Keizer administrators have changed some policies to fix discipline disparities, but gaps persist. 

Larry Ramirez, Salem-Keizer’s high school director, and Matt Biondi, the middle school director, review data on schools monthly, including attendance, grades and discipline. Both said they reach out to schools where they see issues, like an uptick in expulsions, and talk to administrators about what they could be doing differently.

“Nobody wants to suspend or expel kids,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said when they see a policy is contributing to disproportionate outcomes, they’ll change it. About three years ago, he noticed most students getting expelled for having drugs at school were low-income students and students of color.

At the time, district policy said students could receive a lesser consequence if they enrolled in a drug treatment program outside of school. But the program cost money, and it was mostly wealthier and white families who had the money and knowledge to enroll their kids.

Ramirez said they changed the policy to offer the treatment program for free inside schools.

Larry Ramirez, center, high school director for Salem-Keizer School District (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Data shows mixed results. More students of all races are receiving in-school suspension rather than out-of-school suspension for drug possession, but the number of expulsions climbed for both white and Latino students between 2016 and 2019. 

And there’s still a gap: Latino students were disciplined 352 times for drug possession in 2018-19, with 11% of incidents resulting in expulsion. White students were disciplined 243 times, with a 10% expulsion rate.

Richardson became the district’s first equity director after Perry created the position in 2017, after years as a high school principal.

When she took on the new job, she said her team reviewed district data for revelations about where the school system faced challenges in its student population. They selected graduation and dropout rates as their most urgent target, and hired two specialists to work directly with Black and Pacific Islander students, work which paid off last year in record graduation rates for both groups.

Last year, Salem-Keizer also revised its dress code. Richardson said in the past, the policy often led to students of color getting in trouble for wearing items like durags, common among Black students. 

Herrera-Lopez said dress code policies have often targeted Latino students when educators assume Mexican cultural images have gang meanings.

Richardson sees such changes as steps toward district staff better accepting and including the cultures of the students and families they serve. She said too often, students and employees of color don’t feel welcome at school.

“I do believe that kids get oppressed. They feel like they’re not included. They feel like they’re not good enough. And that causes them to act out,” she said.

Before the pandemic closed schools, district administrators planned to hire a counselor, social worker and assistant principal for Houck Middle School to make it a model for restorative justice. That’s a system where a student works to rectify the wrongs caused by their behavior and make amends, rather than being punished with no voice in the process.

Amaya Abejo, Houck Middle School's "Reflection Room" supervisor, applauds a student at an event to celebrate the release of a collection of writing from students frequently in detention or in-school suspension (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Most middle and high school behavior specialists also trained on restorative justice in January, with the goal of making those practices district-wide, rather than a school-by-school patchwork, said Gwen Bruey Finck, director of secondary curriculum and instruction.

Community groups say so far, the changes have been too small to produce results.

Hernández-Lomelí said students still tell her about getting in trouble for dress code violations even though their clothes should be allowed under the new policy.

She said one member of the group who attends North Salem High School was stopped repeatedly for wearing a hairnet at school this year, which made him late to class. The changes, she said, seemed more designed to address the concerns of white female students who reported feeling sexualized by teachers policing the lengths of their shorts or width of tank top straps.

“I think racism wasn’t part of the conversation,” Hernández-Lomelí said.

Perry is planning to recommend changes to policing schools to the school board by Aug. 31, though board Chair Satya Chandragiri has said the board will make the final decision on any changes. He’s spoken about the importance of addressing school climate and the district’s high number of expulsions, but hasn’t said whether he’s willing to consider removing police from schools.

Perry said she intends to continue reviewing discipline practices more broadly after issuing those recommendations.

Hernández-Lomelí said she’s unsure how bold Perry can be given what many perceive as the board’s unwillingness to approve systemic changes.

“I think they are fearful of taking action because of our school board,” she said of district administrators.

Herrera Lopez said when he began advocating for changes in the 1990s, there was no interest from district administrators or the school board in changing discipline practices. Most didn’t see the large racial disparities as a problem, he said.

The prevailing attitude was, “There is no systemic issue. These are kids who are misbehaving and they’re on their way to being criminal or they’re already criminals. So it’s their fault, not our fault,” Herrera Lopez said.

He said that attitude has “softened” under Perry’s leadership, but hasn’t gone away.

“While we hear a story of oppression, of a youth being harmed, of trauma being imposed on a youth, the people in the system are hearing, ‘Yeah, that was done by the book.’ So as long as it’s being done by the book, it’s okay. What we need to do is change the book,” he said.

SUPPORT ESSENTIAL REPORTING FOR SALEM - A subscription starts at $5 a month for around-the-clock access to stories and email alerts sent directly to you. Your support matters. Go HERE.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.