Cambridge Public Schools superintendent Victoria Greer on Sept. 6 at the Kennedy-Longfellow School, where a suspension in 2018 led to litigation cited by her office to decline to comment on district punishments. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge Public Schools students who are disciplined for misbehavior are more likely to face severe punishment – suspension – if they are black, multiracial or Hispanic than if they’re white or Asian. The disparate treatment has persisted for years and is evident in annual data published by the state education department.

Figures for the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent period that wasn’t affected by the pandemic, show that 4.4 percent of black students in Cambridge public schools were punished with out-of-school suspensions, compared with 1.2 percent of white students and 0.7 percent of Asian students. The data are similarly skewed for Hispanic and multiracial students: 2.9 percent and 3 percent, respectively, were barred from school.

In-school suspensions, when students can come to school but can’t attend classes, show the same pattern. So do figures for total disciplinary actions: Higher proportions of black, multiracial and Hispanic students than white and Asian students faced punishment.

Cambridge is far from alone. A report by the Children’s Defense Fund identified racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline as long ago as 1975, and federal education officials have called it a long-standing problem. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice issued guidance to school districts in 2014 on eliminating disparities in school discipline for students of color and other groups, including disabled students.

State student discipline data for public school students in Cambridge for the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent unaffected by the pandemic. Click to go to the state website.

During the Trump administration, education secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded the policy because of school shootings, she said. Federal education officials issued new rules in July to protect disabled students from discrimination in discipline; they have asked for comments about preventing unequal treatment of black students and other racial and ethnic groups.

The total number of out-of-school suspensions in Cambridge fell from 2.9 percent of all students in 2013-2014 to 1.6 percent in 2016-2017, but rose in the next two years, reaching 2.3 percent of all students in 2018-2019. The changes didn’t make much difference in the racial and ethnic gap here, though it has narrowed nationally.

Causes are unknown

These numbers don’t prove that teachers or administrators discriminated against students of color. Some studies have found that black students don’t engage in worse behavior than do white students. Without detailed investigation of the Cambridge figures, no one knows the reason for the disparate punishment. Yet despite this obvious and persistent pattern, Cambridge Day could not find out how or even if Cambridge school officials have responded.

Students enter Cambridge Rindge and Latin School on Dec. 21, 2018. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Asked to comment on the numbers, Cambridge Public Schools Department spokeswoman Sujata Wycoff declined because, she said, it was the subject of litigation. She was referring to a suit on behalf of a black fourth-grader at the Kennedy-Longfellow School who was suspended in-school in 2018 and claims he was treated unfairly because of his race. The state education department said the suspension violated his rights and ordered school officials to remove it from his records.

A split decision of the Appeals Court dismissed one count of the suit because the boy’s lawyer filed the complaint with the school superintendent instead of the city. The rest of the suit is pending, and a Middlesex Superior Court judge recently approved a new schedule for the case. So far, no one in the case has cited the figures from the state education department.

“No such records”

Cambridge Day asked the executive secretary of the School Committee, Ariel Kennebrew, for records of reports about racial and ethnic disparity in school discipline, noting that former member Patty Nolan remembered that a subcommittee had examined the issue at some point. Elaine Carrieri, secretary to the superintendent, responded that Cambridge Day would have to file a public records request with the city.

That request was filed, asking for any reports on student discipline prepared by or presented to the School Committee or a subcommittee between 2015 and 2020. The response: There were no such records.

Building Equity Bridges demands

The committee held a roundtable meeting in May 2019 on “inclusive practices and disproportionality in special education” after former member Emily Dexter had pointed to national findings that disabled students “are more likely to be the subjects of disciplinary actions, to be less likely to graduate from high school and to experience other negative outcomes.” There are no minutes or video of the meeting. In 2018-2019, Cambridge students with disabilities had the highest out-of-school suspension rate of any student group.

Former superintendent Kenneth Salim, seen May 10, 2021, with Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, said he supported Building Equity Bridges recommendations to eliminate inequity. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The school system’s Building Equity Bridges project in 2018 and 2019, which enlisted students, family members, teachers and outside consultants to recommend ways to eliminate inequity, cited disparate discipline as a source of anguish and anger for students of color. BEB issued a set of demands in December 2019 that included a call for “comprehensive review of discipline policies and practices across all schools. This will include heavy investment in restorative practices instead of punitive discipline, including all necessary training, support, staff, scheduling and other changes to allow restorative justice to become a truly viable model for supporting youth needs that manifest as behaviors.”

Former school superintendent Kenneth Salim announced his support for all the demands but didn’t say how they would be implemented. In August 2021, new schools head Victoria Greer created the Office of Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. Yet it’s not known if or how the district has specifically responded to any of the BEB demands, including reviewing disciplinary actions at individual schools and changing the student discipline system. School district spokesperson Wycoff declined to comment, again citing the lawsuit.

School Committee members’ response

Cambridge Day also emailed all School Committee members for comment on the issue and on the state data. Only two, Rachel Weinstein and Jose Luis Rojas Villarreal, replied. Weinstein called racial disparities in discipline “very troubling because they reflect biases in our adults, school system and society. Our children deserve better.”

It is “hopeful news” that the committee, school administration, teachers and community “all agree this is a problem,” Weinstein said. It’s being addressed with “data analysis, professional development, expansion of restorative practices and coaching,” she said. She didn’t respond when asked for specifics.

Rojas said it was his “understanding that the district has trained staff in culturally responsive teaching, in part to address disparities in school discipline.” Rojas said he intends to ask school officials for “the latest data on racial disparities in discipline” in Cambridge schools. He didn’t answer when asked when he’ll request the figures.