Low-income students in Howard County are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their more affluent peers, though there is no easy explanation for the trend.

Eight years’ worth of suspension and expulsion data from the Indiana Department of Education shows that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the students who were expelled or suspended at Howard County’s five school corporations in a given school year qualified for free school lunches.

A four-person household with an annual income of $23,850 is eligible for free school lunches for the current school year. Families with an annual income of $44,123 qualify for reduced-price lunches, and those with a higher income pay full price for their meals.

Of the Howard County students who were suspended or expelled in 2014, 69 percent qualified for free school lunches, 7.8 percent received reduced-price lunches and 23.2 percent could pay full price for their lunches. Since 2007, as far back as the IDOE data goes, low-income students who qualified for free lunches made up the highest percentage of students with disciplinary issues.

Ruby K. Payne, an expert on the mindsets of economic classes and overcoming the hurdles of poverty, defines poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources.” Most often, poverty is associated with a lack of financial resources, but Payne points out that emotional, mental, spiritual, support systems, relationships/role models and knowledge of hidden rules also are important resources.

Schools and businesses operate from middle-class norms, Payne says, and students lacking any of those resources may find it difficult to function in that middle-class system.

Poverty can be one factor in a child’s likelihood to get in trouble at school, Taylor Schools Superintendent Chris Smith said, but there are other indicators too, like bullying, maturity level and peer pressure.

“At any time, any child can make a bad decision,” Smith said. “The key thing is to have systems in place that help prevent these things from happening.”

This school year, Taylor turned the former intermediate school into an annex where students in grades six through 12 go for suspensions. The students are supervised and complete class work so they don’t fall behind, which may not happen if they were simply sent home as a punishment.

Smith also pointed to a new guidance counselor position at the middle school as an additional resource to help students work through what typically is a difficult phase of life.

Since 2010, low-income students have been biggest faction of those suspended or expelled at Taylor, counting for 61 percent of all suspensions and expulsions in 2014. Of Taylor’s total 2014 enrollment, 41 percent of students qualified for free lunch, 10.6 percent for reduce-price and 48.4 percent for paid lunch.

Kokomo Schools offers the most drastic example of the trend, with students who qualify for free lunch making up 58 percent to 77 percent of its suspensions and expulsions per school year since 2007. By comparison, students on reduced-price lunch counted for 6.6 percent to 9.4 percent of suspensions and expulsions in that same time frame, and paid-lunch students made up 14.5 percent to 34.1 percent of disciplinary issues.

In 2014, 60.6 percent of Kokomo’s total enrollment qualified for free lunch, 8.5 percent received reduced-price lunches and 30.9 percent paid for their lunches. Kokomo School officials declined to comment on the link between income level and school discipline.

Eastern Schools Superintendent Tracy Caddell agreed with Smith that the issue of what increases students’ likelihood of getting suspended or expelled is complex.

“Generally, poverty trumps everything else,” Caddell said, noting that when a child’s basic needs are not met, school is not a priority. “My thought is that many of these children come to school less ready to begin school for a variety of factors and are likely more frustrated, which leads to acting out or inappropriate behaviors.”

Academic struggles also can lead to behavioral issues, Caddell added. A student who cannot read at grade level may compensate for that situation with behavior that takes the attention away from the literacy issue, he said.

“Suspension and expulsion really is typically a last resort,” Caddell said. “We really try to do a lot of counseling with the parents and the students.”

Eastern uses behavior contracts to address behavioral issues and set clear expectations, rather than using suspension to try to solve the problem.

Low-income students have been most frequently suspended or expelled group at Eastern since 2011; prior to that, students who paid for their lunches were the largest faction.

In 2014, 57.1 percent of Eastern students were suspended or expelled qualified for free lunch, 5.4 percent received reduced-price lunch and 37.5 percent had paid lunch. Overall, Eastern’s student body in 2014 had 22.7 percent of students on free lunch, 8.5 percent on reduced-price lunch and 68.8 percent on paid lunch.

At Western Schools, it’s fluctuated between paid-lunch students and free-lunch students as to which group makes up the larger percentage of those suspended or expelled. At Northwestern Schools, paid-lunch students account for the most suspensions and expulsions.

Still, at both those corporations, the percentage of low-income students who are disciplined is higher than the group’s percentage of the overall student body. For example, only 19.2 percent of Northwestern students qualified for free lunch in 2014, but free-lunch students counted for 38 percent of Northwestern’s suspensions and expulsions that year.

Education reporter Lauren Slagter can be reached at 765-454-8587, by email at lauren.slagter@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LaurenSlagter.

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