Eliminating racial divide in Howard school suspensions requires community effort, county leaders say

This piece originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

Leaders in Howard County's African-American community say that a slight decrease in the suspension rate of black students from county schools is encouraging, but that the community still has a long way to go to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline.

While the 2014-2015 data released by the Howard County school system last week indicates that the proportion of black students who received out-of-school suspensions or expulsions decreased from the previous year by 0.2 percent to 6.9 percent, black students were still seven times more likely to be suspended than white students, as in the previous year.

"If it is changing, it's not moving fast enough," said Larry Walker, president of the African American Community Roundtable, a collection of Howard County organizations and churches that work to improve life for black residents.

Many educators and education experts agree that out-of-school suspensions should be used as a last resort in disciplining students because of the detrimental effects of missed instruction time, and because of the effect of such punitive measures on a student's psyche.

"While our suspension numbers are declining, we recognize that because out-of-school suspensions negatively impact student engagement and achievement, even current rates are still too high," Frank Eastham, the Howard County school system's executive director of school improvement, said at a school board meeting Thursday.

Walker, who acknowledges the school system's efforts to decrease suspensions, says that the racial divide in school discipline — which exists on the national as well as county level — cannot be overcome without addressing the larger issue of racism in American society.

"I don't want to just lay this at the feet of the school system," Walker said. "Until our community gets serious about change, it won't change."

Across the country, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to a 2014 report released by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

"If you're a white teacher and you got a black kid with long hair who is wearing the latest fashion, and he's doing what most teenage boys or girls do — talking out or acting out in class — it's going to be easy for you to suspend him, because he's a problem," Walker said. "Because our culture sees color as a problem."

Discussing the impact of racism on suspensions, Sherman Howell, vice president of the African American Coalition for Howard County, pointed to a 2015 report by the Justice Policy Institute stating, "Several studies have looked at the relationship between race, behavior and suspension, and none of them have proven that black students misbehave at higher rates."

He also quoted a 2002 Indiana University study that found that white students were more likely to be disciplined for provable offenses, such as smoking, vandalism and obscene language, while black students were more likely to be disciplined for more "subjective" reasons, such as disrespect, excessive noise and loitering.

According to the school system data, the most common infractions that led to the suspension of a black student in Howard County in the 2014-2015 school year were "Attacks, Threats, Fighting," followed by "Disrespect, Insubordination and Disruption."

Walker and Howell both suggested measures that the school system could implement to mediate the effects of societal racism on local school discipline, such as diversifying staff and expanding cultural proficiency training.

According to school system figures for the 2014-15 school year, 42.7 percent of students in Howard public schools were white, 21.8 percent black, 19.3 percent Asian and 9.4 percent Hispanic. That's compared to the county's teaching staff, which is 83.2 percent white, 10.5 percent black, 2.6 percent Asian and 2.2 percent Hispanic.

"Because, you have some good white teachers, but they don't know how to deal with those young African-American males," Howell said. "They don't understand how to encourage, how to inspire black kids."

The county teachers union recently ratified an agenda that demands increased training for school staff on unconscious bias and cultural proficiency, union president Paul Lemle said. The school system currently provides this type of training on a voluntary basis.

Walker said that cultural proficiency training should be mandatory for all teachers, but that this measure won't bring about significant change.

"It makes teachers more sensitive," he said. "But let's face it. If you're more sensitive but you see that just as political correctness and you don't accept it, other than a practice you have to do to keep your job — it's still not going to bring out much change."

Teachers need to engage, empathize with and meet students where they are, Howell and Walker said, to prevent unwanted behavior and keep them in the classroom.

"I had a geometry teacher at Wilde Lake, and she knew that I like sports," Walker said. "I had struggled to remember the hypothesis of stuff. What she did for me, is she helped me to see the angles on the basketball court and on the baseball diamond, and that really helped me to visualize. And once I did that and tied it into something I knew and liked, then bam, I got an A in geometry."

Even if all these changes are made, Walker and Howell said, it will take a larger cultural shift to truly eliminate racial disparities in school discipline.

"First of all, someone has to own racism, and it has to be the white community," Howell said.

"The Black Lives Movement is a great example — instead of saying that, some people want to say 'All Lives Matter,'" Walker said, referring to a grassroots movement that has developed in recent years in response to the unequal treatment of black people by law enforcement.

"Yeah, but as a black man I can be stopped and have a certain police interaction that my white counterpart doesn't experience," he said. "If you don't acknowledge that I live a different reality, you're not willing to do anything to change that reality, to make our realities more similar."

This piece originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

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