LEWISTON — The number of students expelled from the Lewiston School Department was lower than reported to the state last year, the city’s top school official said.

Superintendent Bill Webster said in a recent interview that the real number of students expelled was not 19, as recorded on the Maine Department of Education’s website for the school year 2013-14. The correct number is 15, Webster said, explaining that four of the students had been miscoded by the department and had actually never been expelled.

The state’s records show that, for the last full school year, Lewiston had expelled 19 students; no other school district in the state had expelled more than nine.

While the actual number of expelled students for last year is 15, Webster said that nine of those students were back in school, one is being home-schooled and one had graduated from a special high school program and is working. Another of the expelled students is incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and the whereabouts of two of the expelled students is unknown. One of the students has moved out of state.

Expelled students in Lewiston are expected to work through a formal re-entry plan that includes ongoing schooling, community service, counseling, community-based programs and testing or other assessment. An expelled student generally remains out of school for three to four months, Webster said.

Webster was responding to a Sun Journal story from May 16 in which Christopher Northrup of Portland, who heads the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law, where he is a clinical professor, drew a correlation between the fact that Androscoggin County had the highest rate of disproportionate minority contact for arrests among juveniles and Lewiston School Department’s high expulsion numbers last year.

Northrup was commenting on a report released earlier this month by the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. In that report, titled “Disproportionate Contact: Youth of Color in Maine’s Juvenile Justice System,” the largest disproportionality existed for black youths in Androscoggin County, where they were arrested at more than three times the rate of white youths.

Asked how he might account for that statistic, Northrup offered, “As far as we can tell, the Lewiston schools have been expelling a lot of kids, more than any other school system in the state,” he said. “And many of the children they’re expelling are children of color. There’s a significant correlation between kids who are out of school and kids who get detained” by the juvenile justice system.

According to Webster’s data, five of the 15 students expelled last year were black; that’s roughly equivalent to the percentage of black students in the district’s population.

Webster noted that most students considered for expulsion already have had contact with the juvenile justice system, calling Northrup’s assertion that Lewiston’s expulsions help feed the system a “hatchet job.” Webster said he is suspicious about statistics provided “in broad brush strokes until you dig into the data.”

Although Lewiston has a significant Somali immigrant population, Webster said that portion of Lewiston’s black population tends to be more successful in school than its non-immigrant counterpart. Generational poverty, broken families and dysfunctional home lives play a role in failure in school for all children, including those of color, he said.

Webster said he believes immigrant populations, like Lewiston’s Somalis, generally appear to place greater value in education.

Religious and cultural background can translate to success in school as well, Webster said.

“When it comes to those beliefs at home, they definitely impact student behavior,” he said.

But it’s chronic absenteeism that keeps many more students out of the classroom than do expulsions, Webster said.

For every expulsion, there are roughly 10 juveniles who simply don’t show up for school, he said.

“I would say that truancy dwarfs expulsion,” he said. “If we have a 70 percent high school completion rate, among the lowest in the state of Maine, probably 15 percent, if not more, of those students not graduating haven’t attended school.”

Not all Lewiston students listed as expelled on the state’s website left school because of actions taken by the Lewiston School Department in any given year, Webster said. Any student who was expelled by another school district in the state and then moves to Lewiston is counted in Lewiston’s expulsion rate, he said.

When a student moves to Lewiston, whether expelled or not, the school department will seek the transcript of that student for enrollment. As soon as that student’s record arrives in Lewiston, that student’s disciplinary status belongs to Lewiston, Webster said.

Some districts will “play a game” of not requesting the school records of newly arrived students until that student has demonstrated to the new school that he or she is not going to be a problem, he said.

Because Lewiston is a service center, it attracts a more transient population that is more dependent on public services than suburban and rural areas. While Portland also is a service center, that city “is a much wealthier community by any measure than Lewiston,” Webster said.

Lewiston is the largest recipient of school aid in Maine, a reflection of a relatively high student count and relatively low total property value. Lewiston’s older, multi-family housing stock, coupled with its failure to attract industry, combine to keep its total valuation low, he said.

Lewiston’s transient population is reflected in its schools. In some city classrooms, as many as 40 percent of the students may move during the school year, he said.

Like in Portland, Lewiston has homeless shelters to accommodate transient populations, but also houses group homes where troubled teens from other towns and cities can get services. One such home offering six beds for teen girls just opened in Lewiston.

Some of the girls might be on suicide watch or victims of abuse.

“Really tough situations,” he said. “None of them are from Lewiston, but they’re in Lewiston now and we in the schools deal with it.”

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: