Davenport Community School District is home to draconian punishment. It's either that or its students are three-times more likely to pick a fight than those in Des Moines.
We're not buying the latter.
Davenport district officials were shocked last week when confronted with data released by Iowa Education Department that shows the district places more students on out-of-school suspensions than any other in the state. That number includes Des Moines Independent School District, which touts more than twice the student population.
It's a stunning indictment of an already cash-strapped school district that's struggling to compete with its monied suburban neighbors.
In 2016-17, Davenport Community School District booted a whopping 3,687 students from campus. That's one out-of-school suspension for every four students enrolled in the district. In comparison, some 2,745 students in Des Moines Independent School District were issued out-of-school suspensions, a rate of one for every 12 enrollees. Even worse, out-of-school suspension looks to be the go-to response in Davenport. Out-of-school suspensions comprised 88 percent of all removals from the classroom last year, according to the state data. That number dropped to 64 percent in Des Moines and 74 percent in Cedar Rapids.
This trend holds when Davenport is compared against the rest of Iowa's largest districts. Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Burlington, Davenport outpaces them all, and has for years.
Please, resist the urge to shake your fist and mutter "damn kids." Suspensions are incredibly destructive for the individual student and the student body as a whole, research says. As is the case in Davenport, black students are handed a substantially higher rate of suspensions, and other tough punishments, than white students, say federal researchers.
Keenly aware of the pitfalls of suspensions, Davenport rolled out a slew of disciplinary reforms in 2014-15. They included a standardization of recommended punishments, a move specifically targeted at racial bias. But, to this day, district officials admit that black students remain over represented among those receiving the harshest punishments. Officials touted the program and, in February 2016, claimed a 55 percent reduction in suspensions.
But the state data doesn't bear that claim out. Between school years 2014-15 and 2015-16, out-of-school suspensions dropped just 8.5 percent. The number of suspensions in 2016-17 surpassed the 2014-15 total, the year district officials claim as the baseline, because that's when they overhauled discipline district-wide.
At roughly 19 percent black and 56 percent white, Davenport's student population is, in fact, less diverse than the Des Moines district, which has a substantially higher percentage of Hispanic students, too.
There can be little doubt that Superintendent Art Tate and his staff are in a tough position.
"I can walk into any school and the teachers say, 'You're not tough enough, you don't suspend enough'," Tate told us last week. "It's really a tight rope."
Even so, the inflated rate of suspensions in Davenport, particularly when juxtaposed to the other largest districts in Iowa, suggests a draconian system of punishment that's a disservice to the community. It becomes even more problematic if, as Des Moines district officials told us, suspension is an ineffective method of correcting behavior.
Booting already troubled students only means more idle time. In the past year, children as young as 12 have been arrested in connection to a spate of vehicle heists. School is a place of structure and social regulation. These are imperative social norms, but even more so in a city so wracked by shootings.
It's particularly concerning that Davenport officials were unaware of the district's state-leading status on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, a shameful designation.
There can be no doubt, that there are probably small discrepancies in how individual districts categorize and report the numbers. It's also true that more wealthy districts can offer special diversionary programs -- at wholly separate locations -- that Davenport Community Schools just can't afford.
Whether due to finances or policy, Davenport Community School District is a home to severe punishment that's removing students from the classroom at alarming rates. It's a reality that's to the detriment of the students, the district and the community as a whole.