Under state scrutiny, Davenport schools still miscounted suspensions
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Under state scrutiny, Davenport schools still miscounted suspensions

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The Davenport School District knew it had problems with certain student-disciplinary matters, and now a record-keeping snafu is keeping the state from fully evaluating Davenport's progress. 

Two years ago, the district was called out for disproportionately disciplining minority special-education students. While the district was supposed to be supervised and monitored, certain data showing whether improvements have been made is nonexistent.

Disproportionality refers to the disproportionate number of students of color being identified for special education services, as well as both students of color and students with disabilities — and those students who are both — being disciplined at higher and often more severe rates than their peers.

Davenport Schools didn’t just report record-high numbers of suspensions and expulsions in 2018–19. The district’s removals increased more than 485% from the previous year, and the state noted in its reporting that Davenport’s “significant increase” impacted statewide totals.

Just over 3% of all K-12 students in Iowa attended Davenport Schools that school year, but the district reported 22% of the total expulsions; 41% of in-school suspensions; and 12% of out-of-school suspensions. All in all, Davenport had 28.4% of the state’s removals after three years of hovering around 8%.

But district and state officials now realize the in-school suspension numbers are incorrect. 

Absent an accurate picture of disciplinary removals, it is not possible to determine whether the resources the state has pumped into Davenport — expert-led professional development, board development and state-appointed mentors and advisors — have helped fully address the district's disproportionality problems.

What happened

The Iowa Department of Education said Davenport over-reported certain disciplinary actions in 2018–19 after previously being cited for under-reporting.

The Department didn’t notify the district of the mistake until December 2019, months after the year’s worth of incorrect data was reported.

Discipline in Davenport has been a high-profile topic, with the district reporting to the Iowa Board of Education at nearly every board meeting since August 2018 to address various citations and concerns.

The conversation at the state Board of Education meetings, though, has been largely relegated to broad strokes about Davenport's disproportionality citations and some high-profile student incidents, without explicitly mentioning the number of reported removals, let alone the fact that those removals were still not being accurately reported.

Following an on-site visit in early 2017, the state issued seven citations to Davenport in April 2018, one of which was for removals and suspensions. The required corrective action called for the district to obtain professional learning on the appropriate use of suspension, expulsion and removal for all special education staff, including administrators, and to develop appropriate policies and procedures for accurately reporting suspensions.

About a year later, in May 2019, the state reported that Davenport had completed its professional learning and developed policies and procedures to ensure accurate reporting — a few boxes on the long to-do list were checked off.

Even so, over the course of the calendar year, between citations and completed corrective actions, the number of reported cases exploded without so much as a mention in the state’s 154-page Phase II report.

That report was written after a team of 18 staffers with specialties in accreditation, special education and finance spent six days on site to review documents, interview staff, community members and parents and conduct an online survey of parents. The team cited Davenport for 25 new instances of noncompliance.

In December, Davenport was notified its reporting was flawed — seven months after the state checked off the corrective-action plan to develop policies and procedures to ensure accurate reporting and after the state noted in its own reporting that Davenport’s reported removals were exorbitant.

What took so long?

The Iowa Department of Education collects data three times a year, and most of what is collected is directly tied to a state or federal requirement, said Jay Pennington, chief of the Bureau of Information and Analysis Services. Data about unilateral removals is reported in the spring, at the end of the school year.

Even though Davenport had a citation based on removals, Amy Williamson, chief of bureau of school improvement, said the Department of Education didn’t know the reported removals were so high until the end of the year.

“It took us a while to get to that one,” she said, citing the laundry list of citations Davenport was confronting at once. For the 2018–19 school year, Williamson said, they were focused on IEP re-evaluations for students and getting compensatory education underway. Over the summer, she said, they were concerned with Superintendent Robert Kobylski’s licensure, which was held up because he was transferring from out of state.

It wasn’t until fall 2019 when they “weren’t seeing a downturn” that Williamson said they addressed the issue with administrators.

“We’re not going to see a change in their practice until this spring data,” Williamson said. She noted that they could break the year out to compare numbers before the “moment of realization” in December with the reported removals afterward. With COVID-19 keeping kids out of schools for the last 11 weeks of the year, though, that data will be incomplete.

Each removal is tagged with the primary reason for removal. There are more than 30 categories, which can range from abusive and inappropriate language, to drug or alcohol use, to disrespect, to tardiness to physical fighting without injury, with injury or with serious injury.

Pennington said Davenport over-reported what counted as an in-school suspension. A suspension, whether in-school or out, is supposed to be an administrative action, taken by either a principal or superintendent.

“They weren’t using the filter of an administrative action,” Pennington said. Kids who were put in the hallway were counted as having an in-school suspension. A two-minute “timeout” was documented the same as a day-long removal.

“I think they were overly cautious, which is probably a good thing, to report everything that was happening,” Pennington said.

Amy Williamson, chief of the bureau of school improvement, echoed Pennington, saying the Department of Education really appreciated that they took the citation seriously.

If a student isn’t in the classroom, it doesn’t necessarily mean the student is suspended.

“It’s not just a matter of time. It’s a matter of intent,” Williamson said. “You can’t have a rule that says if it’s past five minutes, that’s a suspension.”

For example, Williamson said teachers might take a student out in the hallway to talk about their behavior and what the student can do to fix it.

“That’s not suspending them,” she said. “That’s teaching them.”

In Davenport, principals and the superintendent have the authority to suspend a pupil. The school board can vote to suspend, too, but it’s comparatively rare; only 15 students have been suspended through board action since the start of the 2016–17 school year.

School board Vice President Dan Gosa said it was “sad to say,” but he wasn’t surprised the district was missing data.

“We talk about (disproportionality), but all we do is talk about it,” he said. “We don’t pursue it and dive in deep."

Director Allison Beck said it was frustrating from the board’s perspective to not have data to look at for that school year.

“I would expect the state to be guiding us in all of the things we’ve been cited for,” she said.

Next steps

Next school year, Williamson said, removals will be a metric that’s monitored monthly or quarterly. Other achievement indicators will be looked at more carefully, and so will a breakdown of data by race and ethnicity.

The state won’t go back and retroactively correct the reported removals for the year-and-a-half Davenport over-reported them.

“I think it would be both difficult and not necessarily instructive to dig back through last year’s data,” Williamson said.

Moving forward, individual students won’t be affected. The incorrectly reported removals won’t stick with them — student records and privacy are protected by law, and the suspensions are not included as part of a transcript for college applications or future employment.

“That’s not following them anywhere,” Williamson said.

With two years gone and many questions unanswered, many are eager to see payoffs for the work being done and the money being spent.

“(Disproportionality) is a huge, huge thing,” Gosa said. “I don’t think as a district we’re moving fast enough.

“How are you going to make any headway if you don’t have data?”

A look at the numbers

Davenport expelled more students than any other district in the state in 2018–2019.

Of the 94 students expelled in Iowa, 21 were from Davenport — that’s 22%. Dubuque was a distant second, expelling nine.

Expulsions are reported as a type of unilateral removal, along with in-school and out-of-school suspensions. While the Iowa Department of Education said the high number of in-school suspensions in the 2018–2019 school year were grossly over reported, the department said they had no reason to think the expulsion data is incorrect.

This academic year has been clipped with school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other Scott County districts, Davenport students haven’t been in the buildings for class since March 13. The board has expelled nine students this year, which is three fewer than the dozen expelled by the same date last year.

Davenport wasn’t on track to have as many expulsions this year as they did last, but even with students out of the buildings for 12 weeks of the school year, the district already matched the number of expulsions for last year’s second-highest district, Dubuque.

Board President Bruce Potts said the students who get as far as an expulsion hearing “have done something really, really severe.” Other board members agreed with the assessment.

“We, especially now, are typically only given expulsion hearings when it’s absolutely warranted: severe bodily harm, weapons, things like that,” Director Allison Beck said. “The threshold isn’t low. It’s a lot.”

Beck also said there were incidents that had more than one student involved, so there were more expulsions than there were serious incidents.

When Kent Paustian first ran for school board this fall, one of his main campaign points was addressing student behavior. He said he took any comparisons between Davenport’s numbers and other districts’ “with a grain of salt.”

The important thing, he said, was getting it right.

“If the expulsion meets the criteria for the school district then, by all means, that student has to be expelled,” he said. “The numbers don’t concern me if it’s a valid expulsion.”

School board's role

During student disciplinary hearings, board attendance has been much lower than for regularly scheduled meetings.

Since the 2016–17 school year, 61% of the 75 hearings held had exactly four board directors present, which is the minimum for a quorum. One meeting in October 2019 was even canceled and rescheduled because the board didn't have a quorum. That student was expelled a week later.

Because of low board attendance, 10 students were expelled in the last four years with only three board members — not a full board majority — voting in favor of the motion.

When a board member voted no, Potts said, it wasn't necessarily because the director didn’t think the student should be expelled. Usually, it was a disagreement over the length of time for expulsion, whether they thought it should be shorter or longer, or whether the student should receive services.

“I can’t recall a time when the vote was ‘I’m voting no because I don’t think the child should be expelled,’” he said.

Vice President Dan Gosa has voted no on more suspension and expulsion motions than any other sitting board member. He said those votes were either because he thought the length was too long or too short, or he didn’t feel like he had enough information to make a decision.

The occasional no vote by a board member rarely impacts the outcome of an expulsion recommendation, however, because other board members generally approve it, records show.

When board members are retired or work flexible schedules, it’s easier for them to attend meetings. Potts attributed the low turnout to scheduling conflicts, as many board members work, and the hearings are scheduled for the convenience of the parents or guardians of the student.

“They have to fit with the parents' or guardians' schedule,” Beck said. “They often have to be rescheduled multiple times.”

It’s not uncommon for the board to stack multiple discipline hearings in a row.

Only two meetings since 2016 had the full board present. The most recent was in November, for a highly publicized incident in which one student attacked another in the West High School cafeteria. That board meeting came more than two years after the last meeting at which seven directors were present.

“That’s a concern of mine,” Paustian said. “There’s always going to be conflicts, but I think board members need to make every effort to attend, and an expulsion hearing is a very important duty and they need to be there.”

Before COVID-19 closed schools, a task force was looking at student behavior. The group was formed as a result of a state recommendation, and the district was working with the city. While the pandemic has forced the district to shift priorities, Beck is optimistic.

“I fully expect the expulsion numbers to come down,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Williamson, the bureau chief for school improvement at the Department of Education, pointed out the Davenport district is unique, because it is much larger than any district in Iowa ever to be placed on conditional accreditation by the state. Plus, the district has more problems and related citations than the state typically encounters.

"The question will always be how long it will take to make the right changes," she said Thursday. "We have been clear with the State Board of Education members and with the district when they have asked us that the changes Davenport needs to make will take years of collaboration between the Department and the district to do right."

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