UPDATE: School district counters group’s stats on discipline, mental health

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ)/Press Release) – A coalition seeking change in the way Fayette County Schools approach discipline and student issues says new data supports their goal.

The data collected by Grassroots Law Project, the NAACP of Lexington and the Institute for Compassion in Justice shows the Fayette County Public School (FCPS) district is policing, criminalizing, and punishing students of color at disproportionate rates, the groups said in a release Tuesday.

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But the Fayette County School District countered, providing information that contradicted the Law Project’s numbers and some of the issues raised by the group.

In a lengthy statement, the district said:

Fayette County Public Schools is committed to providing educational excellence for every student, and ensuring equity in inclusion, access, process and outcome. To accomplish this mission, we have taken timely, deliberate, and unified action to eliminate exclusionary practices and address historical and social barriers that prevent our students from reaching their highest potential.

Addressing disparities in student discipline has been a clearly defined, publicly acknowledged and systematically embraced objective for the Fayette County Public Schools since the release of the Blueprint for Student Success in June of 2016.

There has been no attempt to hide the persistent disparities in disciplinary outcomes for students of color in the Fayette County Public Schools. On the contrary, we have put measures in place to address the issues, and actively monitor trends in our data to determine if the actions taken are producing results.

Additionally, the assertion that Fayette County Public Schools spends more on law enforcement than it does on mental health and student support services combined is absolutely untrue. In fact, the district’s current budget includes $5.7 million for law enforcement and $18.7 million for mental health and student support services.

It is unfortunate that the Grassroots Law Project, the NAACP of Lexington and the Institute for Compassion in Justice have attempted to paint a narrative that the Fayette County Public Schools are at odds with advocates for social justice.

FCPS fully acknowledges and denounces the systemic racism and implicit bias that has gnawed at the soul of our nation since 1619. It will take time, consistent effort and an honest reckoning with insitutionalized discrimination that goes beyond the walls of the schoolhouse to yield the true change our children deserve.

We must note that in their most recent press release, it appears portions of the student discipline data provided through an open records request were misinterpreted. The totals given in their release about the number of suspensions and expulsions are incorrect, based on that misinterpretation.

Additionally, the press release compares spending from all funding sources on law enforcement with just one funding source for mental health and student support services, which is not an accurate reflection of the true investment made in providing mental health resources and student support services for students.

Finally, the call to eliminate police officers from district elementary and middle schools is in direct odds with the 2019 School Safety and Resiliency Act, in which the Kentucky Legislature approved KRS 158.4414, requiring that there be one school resource officer to serve each school campus. Sadly, the fatal school shooting in Knoxville, Tennessee just eight days ago underscores the importance of having more than a single officer on our high school campuses.

That said, Fayette County Public Schools takes full responsibility for creating welcoming, inclusive and equitable school environments for all of our students. Toward that end, we own our data and we are committed to addressing the root causes of disparate outcomes.

To account for differences in enrollment from year to year, FCPS uses a nationally-accepted measure called “risk ratio” to assess the disproportionality in suspension data. The calculation tells us how much more likely students of different races are to be suspended compared with their white peers.

During the 2016-17 school year, the risk ratio for African-American students at all grade levels in FCPS was 4.01, which means they were 4.01 times more likely to be suspended than white students. During the 18-19 school year, that number was down to 3.38. The risk ratio for Hispanic students in FCPS in the 2016-17 school year was 1.42. In 2018-19, the ratio was down to 1.31.

While we are disappointed that disproportionalities remain, and discouraged that the decrease is not more dramatic, this slow, downward trend indicates that we are putting forth efforts to make change that is systematic. Data from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years are incomparable due to the pandemic.

Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, FCPS required all schools to implement Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports – known as PBIS – which emphasizes data analysis, clear behavior expectations, and the development of environments conducive to quality teaching and learning.

We have made significant investments in professional learning and coaching to track the fidelity of implementation in every school, and analyze results each month with teams of district and school leaders.

Seven PBIS coaches were hired at the district level to work with schools and ensure consistent adoption and provide embedded professional learning. Annual evaluations of fidelity against national benchmarks show that since the 2017-18 school year, the number of schools effectively using PBIS structures grew from eight to 57 in 2019-20.

Other actions have included changes to the Student Code of Conduct that promote supportive consequences in lieu of those that require removal from class and new attendance policies allowing students to make up work missed during unexcused absences.

During the 2018-19 school year, Fayette County Public Schools began requiring all employees to complete annual training in cultural competence and racial bias. But that was just a first step.

More than 80 professional learning opportunities are now offered by the district; covering a wide range of topics including “Cultural Competence and Racial Bias”, “Implicit Bias for Law Enforcement”, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning”, “Addressing Race Related Trauma in Schools”, “Facilitating Courageous Conversations about Race While Becoming an Anti-Racist Multi-Cultural Organization”, “Pushback: A Panel Discussion as follow-up to our study of ‘Push Out: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools’”, “Enhancing Equity in School Discipline”, “Equity for English Language Learners”, “Educating Boys of Color Strategies to Address Equity”, “Increasing District Academic Success for Educating Boys of Color”, and “Effective Leadership Development Program Strategies for Boys of Color”. Additionally, during this school year alone, there have been a total of 4,453 participants in professional learning around understanding best discipline practices in schools.

In 2020-21, the district has further expanded its professional development offering in implicit bias by partnering with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in Ohio. Employees now have the opportunity to participate in four different learning modules that progressively deepen reflection and awareness in addition to the ones already offered: “Understanding Implicit Bias”, “Real World Implications”, “Understanding Your Own Biases”, and “Mitigating Unwanted Biases”. To date, 16,913 modules have been completed.

A fuller picture can be seen in the exponential increase in employees receiving specialized training to support trauma informed practice, increase cultural responsiveness, and address implicit bias:

  • In 2017-18, a total of 556 participants received training in the areas of PBIS, culturally responsive teaching and learning, youth mental health first aid, and trauma informed care.
  • In 2018-19, topics expanded to include social and emotional learning, and 2,155 participants attended training sessions.
  • In 2019-20, opportunities were added for training in restorative practice and implicit bias and the number of participants reached 2,168.
  • In 2020-21, the impact of community and gun violence on youth was added, and the total number of participants expanded to 3,302.

Since the adoption of the school safety tax in 2018, a total of 57 additional mental health professionals have been hired and placed in our schools to provide increased services and support for students and augment existing student support professionals. This investment has brought the overall ratio of students to student support professionals down to 220 to 1 at the high school level (including program schools), 226 to 1 at the middle school level, and 244 to 1 at the elementary level.

In addition to staffing, we established the nation’s first mental health referral pathway, implemented a social-emotional learning curriculum that spans preschool to high school, partnered with Lexington PD to adopt “Handle with Care” alerts, and contracted to monitor social media and Chromebook activity for suicidal ideation, self-harm and threats.

During that same time period, FCPS has added 27 officers in our schools for a total of 59 school-based officers, three lieutenants and a chief. Our Fayette County Public Schools Police Department is unique in the nation because it takes community policing to another level — our officers are part of our schools. They are coaches, mentors, and counselors who receive training on implicit bias training, youth mental health first aid, and working with children in school settings.

In contrast to the incomplete data provided by Grassroots Law Project, the NAACP of Lexington and the Institute for Compassion in Justice, here is the actual FCPS spending on law enforcement, student support and mental health services:

FY 2017:

  • $2.5 million on law enforcement
  • $13.4 million on the delivery of mental health services

FY 2018:

  • $2.7 million on law enforcement
  • $13.6 million on the delivery of mental health services

FY 2019:

  • $3.3 million on law enforcement
  • $15 million on the delivery of mental health services

FY 2020:

  • $4.4 million on law enforcement
  • $18.3 million on the delivery of mental health services

FY 2021:

  • $3.8 million YTD on law enforcement
  • $12.3 million YTD on the delivery of mental health services

In the coalition’s initial statement, it said:

The data, obtained through a record request and the Kentucky Department of Education School Report card, also shows the school district spends more on law enforcement in schools than on mental health and student support services combined, the groups claimed.

Key findings cited by the coalition from the data include:

  • From 2017-2020, Black students were suspended and expelled at rates higher than their overall representation in the district’s student population. The same is true for disciplinary actions involving law enforcement, where Black students are affected vastly more than other students.
  • Hispanic students were also expelled and biracial students were suspended at rates higher than their overall representation.
  • Students with disabilities also dealt with police at rates higher than their overall representation.
  • An examination of the district budget of the last few years shows that nearly double the money is spent on law enforcement than is spent on mental health and student support services, including in 2020 and 2021 when school has mostly been remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Even though students have spent most of the year learning remotely, spending of tax dollars on law enforcement personnel, vehicles and supplies has still increased, notably without any justification for such unnecessary expenses.

The full data can be viewed here.

Based on this data, Counselors Over Cops FCPS — a student advocacy group — Grassroots Law Project, the Institute for Compassion in Justice, the NAACP of Lexington and the National Education Association (NEA) Aspiring Educators Program make the following recommendations for corrective measures:

1)    FCPS must eliminate law enforcement from all elementary and middle schools and reduce the number of law enforcement officers in all high schools.

2)    FCPS must change the role of the law enforcement officers who will remain in its schools to focus solely on responding to emergency situations that threaten the safety of students and personnel.

3)    FCPS should invest money in mental health supports and after-school programs that lead to positive long-term outcomes.

The full policy proposal can be viewed here.

“These troubling findings clearly show that the district is punishing, policing, and criminalizing its most vulnerable students,” said Shaun King, Grassroots Law Project Co-Founder. “We must question the outsized role of police in our schools, and build a community where the first line of response are people who are trained to help young people — teachers, nurses, counselors, and mental health providers.”

“This increased reliance on police presence at schools is at the cost of our mental health,” said Micheline Karenga from Counselors Over Cops FCPS. “We are asking FCPS to listen to our experiences and enact policies that have time and again been proven to enhance our education, well-being, and safety. By implementing our recommendations and investing in mental health and support services, we can make FCPS safer for all students.”

“This data underscores the immediate action needed in our schools given the racial disparities in school discipline and school-based policing, the underinvestment in and inaccessibility of mental health and student support services, and the lack of evidence to support the assertion that increased police presence in schools makes our children safer. It’s time for FCPS to take action now by reducing law enforcement officers in schools and invest in what works.” said Rev. James Thurman, President of the Lexington-Fayette NAACP Branch.

“As both an educator and a mom of two kids in the FCPS district, I am deeply concerned for the children in our schools,” said Cameo Kendrick, Chair of the National Education Association (NEA) Aspiring Educators Program. “And as a representative of 40,000 aspiring educators of the NEA, we call for state and local leaders to limit police presence and end enforcement practices in the very place that should be focused on keeping our children safe and educating them — not policing them. We must have a future where education is socially and racially just, and that starts by transforming our policing policies.”