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School District of Lancaster puts focus on African-American student suspension rate

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LANCASTER, P.A. --- For the last two and a half years, Superintendent Dr. Damaris Rau said they've taken proactive steps to reduce suspensions for students, such as hiring 14 additional social workers.

She says suspensions in the district have gone down 42 percent, across the board, over that time frame.

However, one piece of the numbers isn't adding up.

17 percent of their student population is African-American and the suspension rate among African-American middle school males doubles that amount.

"This is an issue. We are concerned about kids being suspended. We know what the research says about how suspensions can lead to prison so we take this very seriously," said Dr. Rau.

She says the school district expect suspension rates to be proportionate with student population.

For example, Dr. Rau said about 60 percent of their student population is 60 percent and the suspension rate for latino students is around 59 percent.

Given the disproportionate number of suspension in the African-American male middle-schoolers, they're researching ways to get that lowered.

One aspect of their proactive steps includes training with teachers and administrative staff.

They're looking to define a "consistent" suspension policy across schools with a focus on what they call "vulnerable decision points" for administrative staff.

"Are you thinking at your best? Are you hungry? Is it the end of the day and you're just making a quick decision? That's why we want to help them by being very clear about this is a suspendable offense and this is not," said Dr. Rau.

For students, she said they're putting an emphasis on reflection and restorative practices.

They're utilizing "reflection rooms" where kids work with counselors and mentors to talk to about their behavior and "circles" where students, teachers and staff can hash-out problems.

"These students are coming back. You can suspend them but they're still coming back and we want to make sure that there's a positive relationship between that student and the school again," said Dr. Rau.

She said they want to avoid sending a student home, where they might be alone.

The Bench Mark Program provides a space for at-risk youth in Lancaster City.

Students age 14 and older come at the recommendation of a school counselor or probation officer.

Founder Will Kiefer said they define "at-risk" students as those who are in an environment that puts them at a greater chance of getting in trouble to setback their personal goals.

Kiefer said school can be the most stable environment for a student because of burdens at home.

"It might be on the food front, it might be on the housing front, it's likely on the family front. So when they go to school, they're not able to concentrate on the tasks in front of them," said Kiefer.

He said school can also be the one space a student can lash out.

"They're in school, structure is being put on them and...boom...I have an eruption, something comes out. Asked to leave school...then where do you go?" said Kiefer.

He said they teach weight lifting and physical activity at the Bench Mark Program to help build students' confidence.

While they provide a space for students to let energy out, he said there are mentors there to offer advice or an ear to listen.

"Weightlifting is the front but what's actually goes on in our facility and our program is connection. This conversation that bubbles up between working sets and in between exercises and that is a comfortable place to talk," said Kiefer.

Dr. Rau said the district expectation is for suspensions go down soon due to the amount of resources they're committing to the issue.

She said they'll continue to seek help from mental health and faith based partners to try and help students.

A spokesperson for the district says to contact the Superintendent’s Office at 717-291-6121 or email her directly at damarisrau@lancaster.k12.pa.us. for information about becoming a mentor for the School District of Lancaster.