Our View: A report on student suspensions in schools can help

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A discussion about student suspensions at a recent board retreat of the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education reveals how racial issues in our schools and even across the scope of our community, state and nation provide a focus for action — if we choose to take it.

The topic about which this discussion occurred was a report on the number of suspensions the school system had tabulated from 2015. The report was presented by Jennifer Hawkins, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank’s director of testing and accountability, after she was asked to compile the data by Superintendent Larry Cartner. The report generally shows that more black than white students in the system’s schools are being suspended — at least during the period covered by Hawkins’ report. Suspended students — of all races and ethnic backgrounds — were disciplined mostly because of fighting or disruptive behavior.

In the discussion following presentation of Hawkins’ report, school board member Harvey Beasley questioned the benefit of showing “that the black kids are bad.” Accordingly, a response to Beasley by other school board members, including chairman Barry Overman, Virginia Houston and Denauvo Robinson, countered that unless the board is aware of the issues affecting students’ behavior in schools, they could not seek solutions and take the appropriate actions.

They make a very good point and one that parents and the public in general can agree is necessary, which is that you have to be willing to take a long, hard and often painful look at the problem as the first step to finding a remedy. This board and this administration seem to be doing just that.

But it’s also valuable to bear in mind why Beasley would want to downplay the report’s findings. His worry, that higher rates of suspensions perpetuate the myth that “black kids are bad”, is justified. That’s because it fits into the conditioned stereotype held by a lot of people. Further, it mirrors and accommodates other data, like that of the nation’s prison population where a large majority of inmates are black, despite a U.S. population that is about a third black.

These and other statistical compilations add to the negative — and wrong — perception that Beasley and others would rather not hold up for everyone to see. There’s plenty of empathy for that view — ours included — and certainly a lot less for the painful truth that is abundantly clear and in plain sight if we care to look.

Unfortunately, our country is nowhere near a nation emerged from its racist past. We’re closer, maybe, but not there yet. And as long as such data-driven comparisons persist, they need to be illuminated, even painfully so — not to illustrate that “black kids are bad”, but, in fact, to help prove they are not. To do that, it’s crucial to identify what’s behind students’ bad behaviors and then find alternatives that work more effectively than suspension.

A lot of education experts would probably agree that the behavior of a middle or high school student — of any race or ethnic background — in a classroom is anything but predictable without the knowledge of where that student came from, where they spend most of their out of school time and with whom they spend time. Hence, getting to know those things may help educators, not only predict behavior, but also to relate with students more effectively and, should more rigid measures be necessary, when possible offer better alternatives to suspension.

First, the public and our dedicated educators have to know if there is a problem, and that won’t happened without reports like the one recently presented to the school board.

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"THE DISCIPLINE GAP: RACISM OR BAD BEHAVIOR?"

Good News! “The gap between black and white student suspensions has narrowed at Northeastern High School.’ It will be a good idea to invite the principal at Northeastern High School to attend a retreat with the school board to discuss his successful plan. “Only at Pasquotank County High School, which reported the second-highest number of white students suspended than black students. Fifty-five white students were suspended while the number of black students suspended totaled 46.” suspensions last fall with 108, were more white students suspended than black students. Fifty-five white students were suspended while the number of black students suspended totaled 46. “Positive school climate has been found to be associated with lower rates of student misconduct and discipline.” “One of the largest gaps between black and white suspensions was at River Road Middle School, where 80 black students were suspended to only 25 white students.”(Were the same black students suspended more than one time or 80 different black students? Were the same white students suspended more than one time or 25 different white students? ( How many suspensions in all?) “H.L. Trigg Community School also reported a large racial gap in suspensions. Sixty-one of the 88 suspensions were of black students.” Were the same black students suspended more than one time or 61 different black students? (How many black students were suspended and how many white students were suspended?) “The gap at Elizabeth City Middle School was nearly double: 42 black students suspended to only 23 white students.”(42 different black students or students suspended more than one time? How many suspensions in all? ) “The gap at Northeastern High School was narrower. Of the 69 suspensions issued, 19 were to black students and 16 were to white students.” (How many white and black students had more than one suspensions. ) “Fighting and disruptive behavior appeared to be the two biggest reasons for the suspensions at the district’s two middle schools. At River Road, 44 students were suspended because of disruptive behavior while 30 were sent home for fighting. (How many suspensions because of disruptive behavior and how many suspensions for fighting?) “At ECMS, 23 students were suspended for fighting and 11 for disruptive behavior.” ( How many suspensions in all because of disruptive behavior and how many suspensions for fighting?) One student can be suspended more than one time, is this the case? “Board member Harvey Beasley questioned Hawkins’ presentation, asking why it was so important “that we indicate that the black kids are bad.”(“There is clearly a discrepancy in how schools respond to bad behavior based on the racial and socioeconomic makeup of their student bodies.” Suspensions, often the first stop along the pipeline, play a crucial role in pushing students from the school system and into the criminal justice system. The school board needs to focus on the characteristics of the school and community instead of the individual.”) .“Board Chairman Barry Overman replied that school officials couldn’t properly address the district’s most pressing issues if they didn’t know the data on which they are based.” (No. Facts.) “Black Students Face More Discipline, Data Suggests” https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/education/black-students-face-more-harsh-discipline-data-shows.html, https://ocrdata.ed.gov/ Data on students suspended with a disability is very important. “Measuring the general deterrent effects with only one year of data is a challenge. Without data on the punitiveness of schools in previous years, no measure of a student’s expectation of punishment is available.” “In some primary and middle schools almost every child receives reduced price lunch, while in other schools almost no child receives aid. Because of inconsistencies in the free and reduced price lunch data at the high school level, we use median income in the area defined by the 5-digitzip code where the school is located to assess economic variation across schools. Although the variation in income is not as stark, it still suggests significant socioeconomic differences across schools. Results for each of the other variables under consideration are quite similar. Race, academic achievement, and the amount of serious violence vary significantly across schools in North Carolina. This is important since these variables are highly correlated with the probability of committing an offense.” “Schools with a high percentage of students on reduced price lunch are also more likely to be predominantly black, struggling academically, and located in a neighborhood with high levels of crime15. The confluence of these characteristics in one school indicates a student population at extreme risk for behavioral problems. Variation in student behavior will still exist within schools. There will always be good students in what appears to be an at-risk school and vice versa. However, when setting the disciplinary tone, the principal must consider the overall behavioral risk of the school.” “Certain schools will have higher at-risk student populations. “A history of violence in the school and community may suggest what the overall mood will be within a school. Each individual student has a history of behavior, commitment to academic achievement, and commitment to the school. Principals aggregate this information to better understand what type of students the school serves. If race happens to be correlated with community or individual factors that put students at high risk for behavior problems, than punishment will differ significantly across racial groups. This does not result from pernicious bias on the part of school administrators, rather it reflects the principals optimal choice of punishment given the expected behavior of the student body.” “In order to explain the racial gap in disciplinary outcomes we need to examine why schools choose varying punishment strategies.” Before addressing the discipline decision of the principal, we must first specify how suspension length impacts student achievement and behavior. the number of days a student is suspended, and the total number of incidents in school. Longer suspensions negatively impact achievement through lost learning.” “This is the only way we can analyze it,” added board member Virginia Houston.” (No Facts.) ” https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/education/black-students-face-more-harsh-discipline-data-shows.html, https://ocrdata.ed.gov/ “Robinson said students who are being suspended aren’t getting the education they need, whether they are black, white or Hispanic. The question for school officials, he said, is “what are we doing to help?” If what the board is doing is not helping, maybe do the opposite of what the board is doing will help. “One of the underlying problems with many zero tolerance policies, is that they come with mandated out-of-school suspensions. Instead, schools should opt for community service and in-school suspensions when possible. The goal should be to avoid denying any student access to education. When you suspend a student, especially out of school for a minor offense, there is no research to support that. That’s just bad practice. It's not educationally sound. That needs to stop. In disadvantaged districts, “the school board tends to have a lot more power in setting disciplinary policy, in particular at the top, and it's followed relatively uniformly across the schools. A district might mandate metal detectors or zero-tolerance policies, for example, and every school follows those policies, regardless of the makeup of the student body. Lowered expectations in the classroom may result in differential treatment for students of color, including less praise and more disciplinary action from teachers. Research suggests that when given an opportunity to choose among several disciplinary options for a relatively minor offense, teachers and school administrators often choose more severe punishment for Black students than for White students for the same offense. For example, in the 2008-2009 academic year, Black students in North Carolina public schools were suspended at rates significantly higher than White students: eight times higher for cell phone use, six times higher for dress code violation, two times higher for disruptive behavior, and 10 times higher for displays of affection. When Black students do “act out” in their classrooms in relatively benign ways, zero tolerance policies provide the opportunity for teachers and administrators—regardless of race or ethnicity—to apply excessive punishment, not just as a consequence of the minor infraction, but also as a reflection of implicit racial bias and a reprisal for the student’s perceived cultural deficiency.”

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