Superintendent Robert Neu called the district’s high suspension rate — especially among minority students — an unacceptable culture of sorting students that he plans to stop. 

click to enlarge Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Rob Neu talks with press about the recently released suspension report at the OKCPS Admin Building in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Rob Neu talks with press about the recently released suspension report at the OKCPS Admin Building in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Superintendent Robert Neu called the district’s high suspension rate — especially among minority students — an unacceptable culture of sorting students that he plans to stop.

During a Tuesday morning press conference, Neu, who became superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools last year, discussed a recent internal discipline audit and ways he plans to decrease the number of suspended students.

“I think that we are suspending kids for infractions that don’t need to be suspended. I think we are suspending kids for lengths of time that are extraordinary. And when you’re issuing discipline to students, they need to be viewed as opportunities for intervention,” Neu said. “Our job is to educate kids, not select and sort them out.”

Neu gave truancy as an example of an offense that should not warrant suspension, and the district's internal audit found the average length of a suspension across the district is 5.8 days. However, several high schools, such as John Marshall, U.S. Grant, Capitol Hill and Classen School of Advanced Studies, have much longer average suspension lengths.

The district had been under investigation by the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights due to its high minority suspension rate, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies (CCRC) released a report this year showing 45 percent of all OKC students and 75 percent of African-American students were suspended in 2012. Neu addressed suspensions as a problem in his first 100 days report last year, but the CCRR report, along with the recently released internal audit, have drawn higher attention to the issue.

The district’s internal audit confirmed that high suspension rates remained a problem this school year and many schools lacked sufficient documentation.

“Public education was designed as a select-and-sort system 250 years ago, and we are still in that select-and-sort mentality,” Neu said. “When we send kids out of our schools, it had better be for the most severe circumstances.”

Neu said the district’s work with organizations like The Learner First and The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations will help change some of the culture leading to high suspension rates. Invited by Neu this past school year, these consulting groups promote individualized strategies to address academic achievement and develop deeper relationships with students.

“We have got to know [students] by name, by strengths and need, but also [understand] their culture and how we can connect to their lives to where it has meaning to them,” Neu said. “The idea is to engage students and their parents in the learning process.”

Policy changes aimed at reducing suspension rates include districtwide training, better organization of data and the development of an early warning indicator system to monitor students at risk of suspension. Neu also said each secondary school would have a new assessment counselor to focus on discipline issues, a reorganized code of conduct committee was being established and new standards and accountability measures for principals that disciple students would be implemented.

However, Neu said no principals or administrators would be removed or reassigned as a result of the audit.

“They are aware of our concerns, and they are aware of the inconsistencies,” Neu said about his principals, whom he met with last week. “We are all working on this together.”

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