By Donna St. George
December 28, 2011
Across the Washington area, black students are suspended and expelled two to five times as often as white students, creating disparities in discipline that experts say reflect a growing national problem.
An analysis by The Washington Post shows the phenomenon both in the suburbs and in the city, from the far reaches of Southern Maryland to the subdivisions of Fairfax, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Last year, for example, one in seven black students in St. Mary’s County were suspended from school, compared with one in 20 white students. In Alexandria, black students were nearly six times as likely to be suspended as their white peers.
In Fairfax, where the suicide in January of a white high school football player who had been suspended brought an outcry for change, African American students were four times as likely that year to be suspended as white students, and Hispanic students were twice as likely.
The problems extend beyond the Washington area to school districts across the country and are among a host of concerns about school discipline that sparked a joint effort by the U.S. Justice and Education departments in July to look into reforms.
Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in suspensions. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.
In the Washington region, many school leaders said they are increasingly focused on the problem and grappling with ways to close the gap.
In Montgomery, Deputy Superintendent Frieda K. Lacey said the district has trained principals and administrators in new approaches, which include involving a team of administrators in suspension decisions.
Still, she said, much remains to be done. Nearly 6 percent of black students were suspended or expelled from school last year, compared with 1.2 percent of white students. The gap remains even as suspensions are down since 2006 across all racial groups.
She pointed to one unsettling statistic: 71 percent of suspensions for insubordination, a relatively rare offense in the county, were handed out to black students. African Americans make up 21 percent of students in Montgomery’s schools. The goal is to dig deeper into the data, offer more professional development and share best practices, she said. “We don’t try to minimize the data,” Lacey said. “We just try to talk about it the way it exists.”
The Post’s analysis found that in the Washington suburbs alone, more than 35,000 students were suspended or expelled from school at some point last school year — more than half of them black students.
In interviews, many school officials noted successes in reducing overall suspensions during the past several years and cited cultural-sensitivity training and positive-behavior initiatives that are more proactive about discipline.
But along with the issue of disparities in many school systems is increasing concern about the subjective nature of many offenses.
In Maryland and Virginia, as in many other places, one of the most common causes of student suspensions are what many call “soft” — or discretionary — infractions: disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language.
Fairfax Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko said the county recently began probing disparities to determine which schools and offenses produce the greatest gaps. Some offenses, he said, allow educators significant latitude in how they respond.
Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by a zero-toleranceculture. As suspensions ticked up, racial disparities widened between blacks and whites — and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics and whites.
The most recent national figures, from 2006, show that 5 percent of white students are suspended, compared with 15 percent of their black classmates, 7 percent of Hispanics and 3 percent of Asians.
“We associate getting kicked out of school with something really really bad, but there has been a sea change in recent years in what kids get suspended for and how often we use suspension,” said researcher Daniel J. Losen, who recently authored a report on suspension and disparities for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.
In Prince George’s, where a majority of students are black, Karyn Lynch, chief of student services, says that for two years, the district has been working to reduce suspensions overall: scrutinizing data, using suspension alternatives and, recently, expanding a positive-behavior initiative to all middle schools.
Lynch says she thinks that disparities will fall away as the system continues to make progress on suspensions. As for why the race gap exists, “I think some of it is cultural sensitivity, believe it or not,” she said.
For parents and students, the disparities are troubling.
Lea Collins-Lee, an African American parent in Prince George’s, said her eldest son was first suspended a decade ago for placing an extra dessert on his cafeteria tray. Last month, her youngest son, now 18, was suspended for five days after a tussle that she said he did not start.
“I really do think it’s harder for black kids,” she said. “If they get into a fight, it’s a gang fight. If white kids get into a fight, it’s a disagreement.”
In Fairfax — with a suspension rate among whites of 1.5 percent and a suspension rate among blacks of 7 percent last year — “you have a lot of minority families that don’t trust the system, and this is one of the reasons why,” said Ralph Cooper, past chairman of the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee, which makes recommendations to the county’s School Board.
The stakes are high for those who get booted out of school.
Out-of-school suspensions mean lost classroom time and, for some, disconnection from school. A recent landmark study of nearly a million Texas children showed that suspension increased the likelihood of repeating a grade that year and landing in the juvenile-justice system the next year. It also was linked to dropping out.
In that research, African American students were more likely to be suspended for discretionary offenses and less likely than whites to be suspended for severe violations, such as selling drugs or bringing a gun to school.
“If they are not involved with the more-serious offenses as often as whites are, what’s going on with those discretionary offenses?” said study co-author Michael Thompson, of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Experts say disparities arise from an array of issues.
They may be driven by unconscious bias or unequal access to teachers who do better engaging students in learning and managing behavior problems when they occur. The leaders of a school system — or of an individual school — strongly influence how often suspensions are meted out.
Mike Durso, a principal for 32 years in Montgomery, Arlington and the Districtwho is now on Montgomery’s Board of Education, said every school has some teachers who make more discipline referrals than others. “I really think it goes back to the training and expertise of teachers and the approach of the school administration,” he said.
Disparities are common in both suburban and urban districts, although urban schools tend to use suspension more, experts say.
“I think people assume it has to be this way,” said Angela Ciolfi of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which in November published a study probing Virginia’s suspensions. But, she contends, “when schools pay attention to who gets in trouble and why, they find they are able to reduce misbehavior overall and also address the discipline gap.”
An increasing number of studies have looked into whether poverty, family background or other characteristics explain racial disparities, said researcher Russell Skiba of Indiana University.
“It is not just a matter of kids coming from poverty,” Skiba said. “Poor kids do get suspended more. But that does not explain why poor black kids get suspended more than poor white kids and why affluent black kids get suspended more than affluent white kids.”
In the Washington region, Anne Arundel County’s racial disparities led the county’s branch of the NAACP to lodge a complaint with federal officials in 2004. Over the years, school leaders made progress on academic disparities, but with discipline, “we haven’t seen any change or any progress,” said Jacqueline Boone Allsup of the NAACP, which filed another complaint this year.
Next month, the district will begin a formal audit to understand more about how and why suspensions occur and to identify patterns. One focus, said Carlesa Finney, the school district’s director of equity assurance and human relations, is “soft” offenses with more subjective criteria.
“One child from one group may get referred for something that another child from another group doing the very same thing doesn’t get referred for,” Finney said, adding that the school system will move aggressively to tackle the problem.