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Suspensions down in Ann Arbor, but rates still high for poor & black kids

Ann Arbor Public Schools

High school suspension rates have dropped by 43% in Ann Arbor over the last few years, but four groups of students still get suspended more often than their peers: boys, African American students, students in Special Education, and kids living in poverty.

“That’s an area we’re really focusing on,” says Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Jeanice Swift. “Because we haven’t realized the dramatic reduction that we have there [with impoverished students] that we have in the other areas.”

When you divide students out by income level, the disparity is pretty stark: last year, 11% of economically disadvantaged high schoolers were suspended at least once. Compare that to just 1.8% of “non-economically disadvantaged” students.

And black high schoolers were far more likely to be suspended than white kids. Nine percent of black high schoolers were suspended last year, compared to just 2% of white students and 0.7% of Asian students.  

That’s not surprising to Daryl Johnson. He’s black, and says he and his wife moved their family from California to Ann Arbor partly because of the good school system. Johnson’s two eldest kids graduated from Ann Arbor high schools, while his younger three are still enrolled in the district. 

“I feel like Ann Arbor has done exceptionally well by my girls,” he says. But both of his boys, Johnson says, struggled with the disciplinary system in Ann Arbor. 

“Especially the black boys, they are put in such a rough position of trying to get education, and almost being told that, it doesn’t matter,” Johnson says. “So ‘Just go over there and sit down. Just go home and be suspended.’ So why try? Why give it the effort? It’s a big issue. And having great minds sit down and try to come to some solutions, is what is really needed.”

Still, while disparities remain, suspensions are down from six years ago, according to the district’s analysis. Back in the 2010-2011 school year, the rate of African American suspensions was 5% higher. Special education high schoolers were suspended almost 7% more frequently.

Today, Swift says, the district tries not to suspend any students, unless it’s for a violent or drug-related offense. Instead, they’ve added restorative justice programs, behavior interventionists, and giving wrap-around support for social and emotional behavior.  

Asked if any of the interventions were aimed at staff and unconscious bias, Swift says yes.

“A decade ago, we were using some pretty blunt tools in the classroom. And we expected students to be able to come to school kind of knowing how to behave and how to act…and we weren’t recognizing that, in this day and age, that’s inadequate.

“All of our team needs support in development, in terms of understanding the barriers that are naturally in place, when a student’s coming from an environment of trauma at home, when a student’s coming from an environment of poverty. When a student’s coming from, you know, minority population. And making sure that we are respectful at all times of the needs and of the cultural implications.”   

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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