‘It doesn’t look good:’ Portland schools admit equity failures, plan deep dive on data

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A month after students staged protests against racial discrimination at Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools, the Portland Public Schools acknowledged its campaign to improve racial equity has been failing.

Despite a stated commitment to equity work over the years, data shows the School Department suspends Black students disproportionately more than white students and reaffirms what the middle school students claimed in their protests: response to reports of discrimination against marginalized students has been lacking.

Portland Public Schools logoDepartment officials said they will produce a more in-depth look at the data, but not until August.

At-large City Councilor Roberto Rodriguez, a former School Board member, said he frequently tried to get administrators to improve data collection on these issues.

“One thing that was obvious when I first came to the School Board back in 2016 was that historically we did not collect data that was broken down by the demographics of our students,” Rodriguez said. The lack of that data makes tackling equity and issues of racial discrimination a challenge, he added.

Now that collection has improved, Rodriguez said, the School Board has been able to spend more time on these issues than they did even five years ago, which is a plus, although he’s still not surprised by the students’ complaints.

According to PPS data, 47 percent of middle school students who were suspended this year were Black – and only 30 percent of the city’s students are Black. The suspension rate is up from 42 percent in 2020 and 38 percent in 2019 (2021 was excluded from the data set because there were so few suspensions, according to Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana).

When students gathered for the protests outside both Lincoln and Moore on May 13 they said they’ve seen discrimination by fellow students and by teachers, and said their online reports and complaints to staff were being ignored.

Part of that is because the online reporting system, “Students Speak Up,” hasn’t taken hold yet in the community, according to Botana. 

In a phone interview, he said “that’s a failure on my part to follow through with the implementation of an important policy lever that would give us the ability to have kids let us know what their experiences are.”

In August, Botana said, PPS for the first time will report on the number of complaints that students have filed through the system and by other means. When the district shares this data, he said, it will show a significant number of cases have been handled through the process.

School Board Chair Emily Figdor last week hesitated to call the program flawed, but said there is a lack of encouragement to students that “Students Speak Up” is a tool at their disposal.

“Students aren’t accessing it in the way that we had hoped,” she said in the board’s June 7 workshop.

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend said during the workshop that he believes the system has been used most by middle school students. “There’s some beginning traction there,” Townsend said, “and we need to double down on making sure all students know how to access it.”

Students at Lyman Moore have also not had recent access to a liaison to deal with these issues and assist with complaints. 

“The liaison position at Moore has not been operationalized; the kids didn’t really have a person to go to for their grievances,” Botana said. The position was vacant for a while after a resignation, he said, but has recently been filled. 

More feedback from students shared in the workshop, with recurring complaints about racial profiling (“assuming Black kids are up to something”), uses of discriminatory language (“teachers try to regulate how we use reclaimed racial slurs. Moreover, they don’t have this same energy when white students say the racial slur”), and siding more frequently with white students than Black students.

Botana said he was surprised to see the disproportionate increase in this year’s data after seeing last fall that suspensions were down. The data underscores the reality of what students have been feeling, and six months on from that point, Botana said, “it doesn’t look good.”

The district’s suspension policy was modified last fall to add introductory language to frame the use of suspensions. Figdor said she feels the board should review the suspension and discrimination policies and “consider substantially tightening” them.

She asked during the workshop if the department is confident that all its suspensions meet the policy criteria, to which Botana replied “I can’t answer that question. We expect that they do.”

Modifications to the suspension policy were supposed to advance development of a “re-entry plan” and ensure that punishment is restorative, allowing students to learn and get closure from conflicts, whether it’s between students or students and teachers.

“Those are the things we’re not doing as well as we need to, and that’s on me, that’s on my administration, not on our teachers,” Botana said.

As the school year comes to a close PPS and the School Board have set their focus on implementing new strategies for the 2022-2023 school year. Student leaders at the middle schools will be engaged over the summer to help develop better responses for issues in the fall, and additions like affinity groups are in the works.

The School Board meets again on June 21, where it will vote on allocating contingency funds for activities in response to last month’s protests.