Kwame Briggs knows how his son feels.
Briggs, 36, says he often spent time in the principal's office and detention when he attended Portland Public Schools in the 1990s. He admits he was no angel, and deserved some of the discipline he received.
He now has a 12-year-old son who has been to five Portland schools in seven years. His son has had good stretches when the school rarely called Briggs, and bad ones when the boy talked back to teachers and fought with classmates. His son has been suspended more times than Briggs can remember and spent time in behavior rooms for disruptive students.
Briggs doesn't sugarcoat his son's actions. But he believes his son is seeing the same kind of unequal treatment he experienced.
"If he skips school, he gets suspended; if his friends who are white or Hispanic skip, they don't get in trouble," says Briggs, who worked as a janitor for Portland Public Schools after graduating from Jefferson High School. "I've seen it as a student, as a worker and as a parent. It's really hard to see my son go through the same thing I did."
Whatever might have been the reason for his son's punishments, Briggs has one thing right: Portland Public Schools has demonstrated a historic bias when it comes to punishing black kids.
According to data provided to WW by the school district, the overall number of students being disciplined has fallen in the past three years, but the inequities between white and black have grown worse. Today, African-American students in Portland schools are nearly five times more likely to be expelled or suspended than whites.
It's a record that puts Portland's unequal treatment of black students well above the national average and far worse than districts under federal investigation for civil rights violations.
"We have lost generations of young men because of disparities in the education system," says Urban League of Portland President Michael Alexander. "There is no acceptable level of disparate discipline."
Over the past six years, Portland Public Schools has spent millions of dollars to address a wide range of racial inequities, including graduation rates and reading scores.
District officials have overhauled almost every school policy based on the idea that unconscious racial bias in the school system is the biggest driver of unequal treatment of black students.
The philosophy has been pushed by the district's primary consultant on race issues. The district since 2007 has spent more than $2.5 million on employee training, called Courageous Conversations, and will spend about $1 million this year to fund its equity office largely based on these ideas.
Discipline is perhaps the clearest marker of success in addressing inherent bias—it reflects the daily relationships between school employees and students.
Records obtained by WW show that under Superintendent Carole Smith, the unequal rates of discipline have grown dramatically worse for African-American students since Courageous Conversations training started.
Despite this trend, district officials say their approach is working.
"We are impacting the belief system of an entire group of people, and that has a direct impact in the classroom in how they handle discipline," Smith tells WW. "We are on a track here."
A number of parents and school activists say Smith and other school leaders lack the honesty to admit their approach to ending disciplinary inequities isn't working.
"Folks are getting tired of having conversations," says Sheila Warren, founder of the Portland Parent Union, which works with teachers and families affected by school discipline.
"The district will stand by Courageous Conversations because they put a lot of money into it and they believe it is working. The district always has great stories to tell about it, no matter what the data show."
Students who get kicked out of school often find themselves on a track to failure. Truckloads of studies have shown that suspending or expelling students increases the chance they won't finish school. A recent Johns Hopkins University study found that booting kids out of school even one time doubles their risk of dropping out.
Portland Public Schools—with a graduation rate for African-American students of about 52 percent—can hardly afford to knock more students off the path to a diploma.
"Suspension should be the last resort," says Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor and national expert on closing the racial achievement gap. "Why would you think kids who aren't doing well in school will do better with less school time?"
Students get what are called "referrals" if school officials believe they have violated the code of conduct. Last year, the district suspended or expelled 2,145 students; fighting, disorderly conduct, threats and intimidation, insubordination and battery are usually among the top reasons.
A 2012 report by the Multnomah County Commission on Children, Families and Community found black students were often disciplined for more subjective reasons—disrespect, excessive noise, threat and loitering—than were whites.
The unequal discipline of black students matters for another reason as well: The federal government can come in and force districts to fix the problem.
More than 20 districts, including Minneapolis and Seattle, are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for their disparate discipline of black students. Last year, Oakland, Calif., schools reached a settlement intended to end unequal punishment there.
Internal memos show Portland school officials are worried they could face a similar investigation.
Experts see a wide range of reasons behind disparate discipline rates. Students who come from lower-income homes tend to have more disruptions in their lives; researchers say that can lead to more discipline problems in schools. And a disproportionate number of African-American students come from tougher economic circumstances. The degree to which teachers are trained to handle disruptions in the classroom is also a factor.
National experts on disparate discipline, such as Noguera and Dan Losen, director of the Civil Rights Remedies Project at UCLA, point to studies showing unconscious racial bias also contributes.
"No one can escape it," Losen says. "The question is what you do about it."
Portland school officials have put almost all their emphasis on the belief that racial bias is to blame.
"What causes those kids to get into trouble? Trigger words, or tone from the teacher," says Willie Poinsette, formerly chief officer for Student, Family and School Support for the district who retired in 2012 as principal of Humboldt School in North Portland.
"People haven't had experience with black and brown kids; they don't know where the kids are coming from because whiteness pervades our system."
Portland schools have paid a consultant, Pacific Educational Group, $1.2 million to help address racial inequities. The bulk of that went to racial-sensitivity training, for the superintendent, district executives, principals, teachers—even bus drivers.
The district has spent another $1.3 million to cover related costs, including travel expenses for teachers to attend conferences in San Antonio and San Francisco. Pacific Educational Group won its contracts without bidding.
"Our purpose at Pacific Educational Group," the company's website says, "is to transform educational systems into racially conscious and socially just environments that nurture the spirit and infinite potential of all learners, especially black children and their families."
The training, called Courageous Conversations, is intended to raise awareness of what Pacific Educational Group calls the privilege of "whiteness"—and how other groups must adapt to meet the expectations of white society.
While sessions differ, most are a mix of intimate conversation and rigid protocol that forces participants to confront their views and discomfort in talking about race.
Some exercises involve participants assessing how much race affects their daily life. (Prompts include "I can choose blemish cover or bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin," and "Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.")
Others encourage district employees to state their racial identity whenever talking to their colleagues about school issues. (For example, "As a white woman, I see this issue as…")
Pacific Educational Group has been hired to provide its Courageous Conversations training around the country. One of the things that sets apart the experience in Portland, though, is the degree to which the district has infused the philosophy into its policies. Every school building, for example, now has Courageous Conversations each month.
Teachers have said in surveys they find the training sessions helpful. "It gave me the permission and the space to talk explicitly about race, with students and with other teachers," Catherine Theriault, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School, tells WW.
Other teachers say the district's approach isn't working. "Very little has been about how to work with students; it's been about us," says Aaron Byer, who teaches freshman and sophomore math at Roosevelt. "That's been a frustration with a lot of teachers."
The schools aren't alone. The unequal discipline of African-American students has grown worse across the district since the training began.
Four years ago, before the Courageous Conversations training started, black students were 3.6 times more likely to be suspended or disciplined than white students—a rate slightly above the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Records for the last school year show the disparity has grown to 4.9 times.
The situation is especially bad at middle schools, where black students are 6.7 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites.
When asked about the worsening numbers, the school district offered no explanation as to why it was happening as the Courageous Conversations training expanded.
"Hold our feet to the fire," says district spokesman Robb Cowie. "But it's not fair to say the equity office isn't effective or Courageous Conversations isn't effective because of this one issue."
The district has succeeded in reducing the overall rate of suspensions and expulsions, from about 7 percent of all students four years ago to 4.7 percent last year.
But if racial-sensitivity training was working, the district would expect to see disciplinary numbers for African-American students improve at least as fast as they have for whites.
The opposite has happened.
In 2009-10, the percentage of African-American students suspended or expelled was about 18 percent. The next year, it fell to 14.8 percent and hasn't improved since. White students, records show, are getting off the hook more often than before.
"Rates of exclusion are declining for all racial groups," according to an internal August 2013 school district document, "but they are declining at a faster rate for white students than for most students of color."
Cowie says the district is "well aware of the irony that discipline rates are down more for whites. Disproportionality is a serious issue."
Smith says her office has been putting increasing pressure on principals to reduce overall discipline. Teachers say they feel pressure from principals to reduce discipline across the board.
"They say, 'Why did you write so many referrals?" Roosevelt's Byer says. "There's pressure to lower aggregate numbers."
"The message we are getting is, we don't know how to discipline students of color," says Emily Toll, a second-grade teacher at Southeast Portland's Harrison Park School with 29 years' experience. "When the boundary keeps moving or is not there, it is confusing for all students. They just push and push until we are all in free fall."
In some cases, teachers say, they are being blamed for behavior that is unacceptable—no matter the student's race.
In October 2012, a high-school-age student in an alternative program repeatedly punched his female teacher in the head during class. The teacher, who has worked in the district for more than two decades, had to seek emergency medical treatment.
The district immediately suspended the student, who is black. The teacher is white.
The teacher decided to press charges against the student. When she returned to her job, according to sources familiar with the incident, the teacher was summoned to a meeting with the vice principal. During the meeting, the vice principal lectured her about how difficult it is for young black men to overcome having a criminal record. The assistant principal also told the teacher that she should examine through a "racial lens" what role she played as a white woman in the attack on her.
The teacher reported the conversation and the lack of safety protocols to several people. The administrator has since left the school.
WW is not naming the teacher or school to protect the safety and privacy of her and the student. The teacher declined to speak on the record about the incident.
Smith confirms the incident took place. She emphasizes the importance of teacher safety and that the student was dealt with immediately.
But Smith defends the assistant principal's comments to the teacher, adding that "asking the question of how and why a situation escalated to violence is appropriate."
"It is still a struggle to make discipline a part of districts' conversation about what it takes to make a successful school," Losen says. "This should be a top priority."
UCLA's Civil Rights Project, which studies disparate discipline, says any school in which 25 percent or more of black students are suspended or expelled in a year should be considered a "hot spot" that deserves immediate and intensive attention.
Records show Portland schools include eight such hot spots. "That's a huge red flag, when discipline is different from one school to the next," Losen says. "The superintendent has not gotten everyone on the same page. There is a lot you could be doing."
Smith tells WW the district is tracking schools where the numbers are getting worse. But Smith also thinks a school can be considered successful even if it is a hot spot. In an August gathering with district principals, Smith and school officials held up one hot-spot school, Hosford Middle School, for its many successes—even though 36 percent of its black students were suspended or expelled last year.
Portland school officials point to other successes they credit to Courageous Conversations: higher graduation rates, more students on track to graduate, and improved reading scores among third-graders. Except for a tiny improvement in graduation rates—less than 1 percent since 2009-10—the racial gaps between white and African-American students have shown no improvement.
School officials strongly disagree with that assessment. They say third grade reading scores show a 6-point narrowing of the racial gap between black and white students since 2009-10.
For its benchmarks, PPS tracks the percentage of third graders who exceed state reading standards. WW examined scores as tracked by the Oregon Department of Education, which applies a broader measurement for all schools that includes students who meet and exceed standards. The state numbers show the gap for white and black PPS students widening by 14 points during that same period.
PPS officials also point to a narrowing of the gap between black and white students on track to graduate by 10th grade. School officials say they have narrowed that gap from 21 percent to 15 percent since 2009-10, and that is a meaningful difference that WW has overlooked.
"For the first time since PPS began measuring the racial educational opportunity gap, we are making progress in narrowing that gap. We are raising achievement for all students even as we accelerate gains for students of color at key academic benchmarks," the district's Cowie says. "We look forward to the day when race no longer predicts the outcomes for students in our schools and all students can reach their full potential."
"I'm not a big fan of Courageous Conversations as a change agent," says Karin Chenoweth, writer-in-residence at the Education Trust and author of three books about schools that have successfully closed the achievement gap. "It's really good at raising emotions, but that isn't the same thing as changing student outcomes."
The district is trying other ways to change the equation on disciplining black students, including programs that emphasize good behavior over punishment, use playground coaches to quell recess battles, and, in a few schools, apply "restorative justice," which requires students to make amends for their actions.
Charlene Williams, principal of Roosevelt High School, says Courageous Conversations contributed to her school's gains over the last three years, including closing the graduation gap and lowering overall discipline numbers.
"This gives us permission to have a conversation about race, to stay in a conversation many of us would rather avoid," Williams says.
Grant High School saw racial gaps in graduation rates shrink under former principal Vivian Orlen. Orlen said she found success by scrapping the district's equity strategies and establishing no-nonsense discipline standards.
Orlen says Courageous Conversations and its underlying philosophy had no role in her school's success. "There has been too much talk by adults," she says. "We have too little time with these kids."
WW asked the co-chairs of Portland Public Schools' board of directors, Greg Belisle and Pam Knowles, to talk about Courageous Conversations, discipline rates and the progress they see the district making. Neither Belisle nor Knowles were available for comment.
Kwame Briggs' son has had a good start to the school year. The boy loves Greek myths, science and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
"I'm trying to give him opportunity to make the right decisions," Briggs says. "Yeah, he is going to make mistakes, but if he does his schoolwork and can get through college and can have that work ethic, then hopefully he'll have a better chance. I just want him to have a good life, not to be trapped.â