By Noah Taborda, Kansas Reflector
— The State Board of Education is focusing on recommendations from a state commission report on racial equity issues, particularly ways to update or address zero-tolerance policies in Kansas schools.
The second annual report from the Kansas Commission on Racial Equity and Justice focused on the social determinants of health, which include access to quality education. In the final set of recommendations, the panel homed in on several aspects of educator and staff training, ways to leverage funding for students in need, and partnerships to curb the school-to-prison pipeline.
Among areas the commission felt schools could improve upon was the dynamic between law enforcement officers in schools and students, said Tiffany Anderson, co-chair of the commission and superintendent of Topeka Public Schools. The report details data showing more arrests of students for minor crimes in schools with school resource officers, especially among students of color.
“School districts really should seek to implement alternative complementary programs to address conflict and violence,” Anderson told the state board of education Tuesday. “So, evidence-based programs such as restorative justice practices should be used along with or instead of SROs when kids are experiencing conflict.”
Established in 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the commission offered 124 recommendations to various levels of government and other stakeholders. While many of the suggestions need to be implemented at the local school board or legislative level, Anderson and board members discussed how they could influence or address some areas themselves.
Betty Arnold, a board member representing several districts in Sedgwick and Butler counties, was worried about the use of zero-tolerance policies in schools. For example, Arnold noted bringing a replica of a weapon, like a toy gun, is often enough to warrant expulsion for a full year under these policies, despite the fact some students would not think twice about a toy being such a significant problem.
She wondered how report recommendations could be used to address what she viewed as an overly harsh policy.
“When we have something in place, like a zero tolerance, I am concerned that most of those students that are expelled are the ones that really are lacking in behavioral or social areas,” Arnold said. “If they miss a year, and they’re not able to find a place to keep them on track, then the probability that they’re going to go back or that they’re going to graduate really becomes a big area of concern.”
Anderson noted that the 2020 commission report addressed zero-tolerance policies by creating alternative education opportunities. She said while a student may do an unsafe thing, all children deserve the opportunity to continue their education.
She said schools and local law enforcement should endeavor to create sustainable partnerships and come to a revised understanding of what justifies expulsion.
“The problem is the problem. The child is not the problem,” Anderson said. “When we act like the child is the problem and use that to be punitive toward the child, the child comes back often from suspension even worse than when they left.”
Ann Mah, a Topeka board member, urged more initial efforts to ensure those who need to hear about the recommendations, such as superintendents and school counselors, are informed.
Jim Porter, chairman of the state board, suggested encouraging superintendents to employ commonsense approaches.
“There’s an obscure part of that law about a weapon that superintendents have some authority to make some decisions, and I know in my career I’ve done that twice,” Porter said. “With zero tolerance policies, you’re going to lose that child forever.”