Underscore News + ICT

Entering into the third week of no school in the Portland Public School District, the main points of contention in the historic Portland teachers strike are wages and class sizes. But teachers and the district are also wrestling over another contract provision — a policy that results in dramatically higher rates of suspension for Native and Black students, compared to their white peers.

The teacher’s union has six main demands, according to Francisca Alvarez, bargaining team member with the Portland Association of Teachers. Alvarez said the main issues are salary increases and more planning time for teachers, class size limits, support for the physical health and safety of students, mental health support for students and a robust special education model.

Despite a weekend of negotiations, the union and the district appear no closer to a compromise that would end the strike.

One policy under debate has drawn attention from critics who say it results in higher rates of discipline for non-white students. Article 9, one of 30 sections in the union contract, lays out mandatory minimum suspensions for middle and high school students. The policy sets a minimum of five days of suspension when a student creates a “threat” or “causes fear of harm.”

Teachers do not issue suspensions. Instead, they write referrals and school administrators ultimately decide which students are suspended or expelled. However, the current language of the policy removes administrator discretion on issuing suspensions, by assigning mandatory action for specific referral types, such as minimum suspension periods.

Education experts say the method for issuing suspensions is too subjective – based on a teacher perceiving a threat, or fear of harm. The result is that students of color are far more likely to be suspended than white students across the district, particularly Black and Native American students. And that has an impact far beyond students' experiences in middle and high school.

“Disproportionate rates of discipline are actually leading to systemic poverty,” said Tamara Henderson, Laguna Pueblo, chief operating officer at the Native American Youth and Family Center and president of the Oregon Indian Education Association.

In a district with over 49,000 students across 81 schools, just 0.5% of students identified solely as Native American in 2022. According to the same data set, students who identify solely as Black accounted for 8.3% of the student population. By comparison, 55.9% of students in the district identified as White. (This data is skewed, because it does not account for mixed students who identify as Native or Black and some other ethnicity, with 6.7% of students identifying as multi-racial.)

Yet students of color are much more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

According to data collected by Portland Public Schools, students of color were far more likely to be suspended or expelled during the 2022-2023 school year than their white counterparts. Among the district’s Native American students, more than 12% were subject to exclusionary discipline last year, and 11% of Black students were. The proportion of white students receiving out-of-school discipline was a fraction of that – 2.4%.

Said another way, Native American students are 5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. And Black students in Portland schools are 4.6 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

Both the district and the teacher’s association have brought forward proposals to modify the language of Article 9. The proposals share an emphasis on restorative justice. Still, the two sides don’t agree on exactly how to change the policy.

The district proposal to change Article 9 suggests getting rid of mandatory minimum suspensions, which are currently set at five days.

“Black, Native American, and other students of color are referred out of class significantly more often,” the district’s Collective Bargaining Team said in a letter to Portland families Nov. 3. “Students receiving special education services also bear the burden of disproportionate discipline. This ‘discipline’ is far from the root of the term ‘discipline’: to instruct, train, and educate.”

The teachers’ union, on the other hand, called for the creation of “intervention spaces” where students could be sent during the school day if they are exhibiting disruptive behavior. The union proposal also requests a more rigorous tracking system for referrals – the mechanism that results in suspensions.

The district declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing negotiations. But in its letter, it criticized that proposal.

“Under their initial proposal, the grounds for excluding students would remain highly subjective,” the letter said. “Rather than terms that would decrease how long or how often students are excluded, their proposal would create an ‘intervention space’ in each school. We believe the creation of such a space would not only make it far easier to exclude a student, but also increase the stigma associated with that exclusion. Student exclusion is student exclusion, whether that means leaving class or the building.”

Alvarez, the union representative, said highly disproportionate rates of discipline raise a larger question: whether students of color are getting the support they need at Portland schools.

One indicator of student support is whether or not they see themselves reflected in the classroom — interacting with other staff of color and engaging with a curriculum that reflects their experiences.

“If I noticed that several students of color are getting referrals, that should be a red flag for me to go underneath the line and do research to find the root of the problem,” Alvarez said. “We don’t have the supports in place to support our students of color.”

‍This story is co-published by Underscore News and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Lead image: Hundreds of teachers, parents, students and supporters rallied together for the first day of the Portland teacher strike at Roosevelt High School in North Portland. Mark Graves/The Oregonian

Correction: An earlier version of this story understated the percentage of students of color subject to exclusionary discipline. District data showing disproportionate rates of discipline refer to the percentage of students suspended or expelled within each racial category for which data is collected, not as a fraction of the total number of students disciplined. Underscore regrets the error.

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...