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New discipline data about Newark schools comes with big caveats

Newark’s charter schools collectively suspended a larger share of their students last year than did the city’s traditional schools, according to self-reported data from schools that the state released this month.

The charter schools also reported a higher rate of serious incidents that can lead to suspensions, such as violence and substance use, according to the 2017-18 data. Traditional schools, meanwhile, had a higher rate of confirmed harassment or bullying incidents.

The data is included in school report cards the state published this month, which are meant to give families and the public a detailed view of school performance. But the data comes with some big asterisks, which can frustrate efforts to compare different types of schools or track trends over time.

First, Newark Public Schools officials have acknowledged serious flaws in how schools record the suspension numbers that are submitted to the state. As a result, while the district’s report card says that only 1.8 percent of students were suspended in 2017-18, the actual rate is almost certainly higher. (According to federal data, which Newark officials say is more accurate, 6 percent of Newark students received out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent received in-school suspensions in 2015-16, the most recent year for which federal data is available.)

The other challenge with the newly released discipline data is that districts submitted it using a new data-collection system, which officials say should lead to more accurate reporting. However, the shift in reporting systems means that the 2017-18 discipline numbers cannot be compared with previous years, according to state officials.

With those big caveats in mind, Chalkbeat analyzed the discipline data reported by Newark schools. The data covers about 36,600 students in district-run schools and about 17,000 students in charter schools, which are run by 18 different operators.

The 2017-18 data shows that:

  • Suspensions — About 9 percent of charter school students received suspensions, compared with about 2 percent of district students. (The statewide rate was 3.6 percent.)
  • Disciplinary incidents — Charter schools reported 404 disciplinary incidents involving violence, weapons, vandalism, substances, and harassment or bullying, while traditional schools reported 647 incidents. That amounts to about 2.4 incidents per 100 charter students, compared with 1.6 incidents per 100 district students.
  • Bullying — Charter schools reported 42 confirmed incidents of harassment, intimidation, or bullying, while traditional schools reported 276 confirmed incidents. That’s a rate of three confirmed incidents per 1,000 charter students versus seven confirmed incidents for every 1,000 district students.
  • Police — Charter schools notified police about 13 percent of serious incidents, while traditional schools called police about 19 percent of serious incidents. Police arrested 27 district students. (The number of charter arrests was too small for the state to report, due to privacy laws.)

Suspension rates varied widely among schools.

Sixteen of 63 traditional schools reported zero suspensions, while Malcolm X Shabazz High School reported suspending 18 percent of students — the highest rate in the district. (Shabazz has a new principal this year, Naseed Gifted, who did not respond to an email asking whether he has made any changes to the school’s discipline policies.)

Again, the suspension numbers that the district reports to the state are suspect. In 2015-16, Shabazz’s state report said it suspended less than 1 percent of students — while federal data showed it gave out-of-school suspensions to 44 percent of students.

Among charter schools, eight operators reported zero suspensions in 2017-18. The others ranged from 1 percent of students suspended at KIPP schools to 50 percent of students at People’s Preparatory High School — the highest rate of any charter school in the state.

Jess Rooney, founder and co-director of People’s Prep, said one factor in the school’s high suspension rate last year was its practice of suspending students who missed a certain number of detentions — a policy the school has discontinued. She said the school has also expanded its “cultural leadership team,” which oversees student support and discipline, and that the suspension rate is significantly lower this year.

Rooney also said the school is diligent about reporting disciplinary incidents and suspensions.

“We take our students’ safety incredibly seriously,” she said, “and we take state reporting incredibly seriously.”

At a meeting of the Newark school board last week, a district official said schools reported an increase in violent incidents this fall. The official, Karen Fennell, attributed the rise to better reporting via the state’s new data system.

Fennell also said reports of harassment, intimidation, and bullying rose dramatically — more than quadrupling in one year to 223 confirmed incidents in 2017-18 — which she also attributed to better reporting. She said the upward trend called for more violence-reduction programs, staff training, and student supports.

Reports of suicides related to bullying have also been on the rise, Fennell added.

“Suicide is a national problem, it’s a New Jersey problem, and it’s a district issue,” she said.