Request for info on SMSD discipline rates by race caused tense interaction — here’s a look at some of the info available

Liz Meitl’s request for the Shawnee Mission School District’s most recent data on discipline rates by race at each building sparked a tense interaction at Monday’s board of education meeting, with Board President Brad Stratton pushing back and suggesting that fulfilling the specific request would co-opt staff time because the information was not already available in the format she requested.

But similar data from recent years is available for review through a few publicly available sources.

Liz Meitl speaking during Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

ProPublica published a review of data on the racial divide — including figures on discipline rates, gifted and talented composition, and academic achievement — based on information from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for the 2015-16 school year, the most recently available data set.

That report suggests that black and Hispanic students make up a disproportionately large amount of serious disciplinary cases in the district. Total enrollment at the district was 64 percent white students, 19 percent Hispanic students and 9 percent black students. But out-of-school suspension cases included 47 percent white students, 18 percent Hispanic students and 25 percent black students. Expulsion cases were 38 percent white students, 25 percent Hispanic students and 38 percent black students.

Kansas Appleseed, a non-profit organization that focuses on issues affecting “vulnerable and excluded” Kansans, published a report highlighting ways the district could improve its inclusiveness and fairness, using data from the 2011-12 school year that showed a disparity in discipline rates by race.

The issue has been on the central administration’s radar, as well. Ed Streich, the district’s chief of student services, delivered a presentation at the Jan. 14 board of education meeting that touched on discipline data, including the fact that Shawnee Mission schools — like schools across the country — appeared to be disproportionately disciplining students of color.

But Meitl says she believes it’s important for district officials — and the patronage at large — to understand how discipline is being meted out at each building as the district undertakes its broader strategic planning process, which is focused on issues of equality and inclusiveness.

“The reason I thought the data should be made public is because the board and the cabinet have been putting all of their eggs into the Strategic Planning basket,” Meitl said. “I thought people on the committees and action teams should see the reality of what is happening, so they aren’t operating on false narratives.”

She believes the data she requested will help ensure that the strategic planning teams aren’t “focusing on the achievement gap in a vacuum.”

“We can’t even begin to talk about academics until we get kids in school and paying attention,” she said. “All the research shows that.”

Meitl submitted her data request under the Kansas Open Records Act in late October. The district sent her a message in late November saying that it could not fill the specific request for building level data because “The Kansas Open Records Act…does not require the District to create records or to compile specific information requested by an individual,” and that “Because the District does not possess the records you requested, and would have to create those records, the District is unable to fulfill your request.”

She filed a complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s office in December over that response, saying that the district should have provided her the building-level information.