Black Students Suspended More than Whites: Why?

June 12, 1994|By LAN NGUYEN

Black students across the nation are much more likely to be suspended from school than white students -- and educators are troubled by it.

While 12 percent of all black students nationally were suspended in 1992, only 4 percent of all white students were suspended the same year, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights Division.

Educators offer various explanations for the difference in suspension rates, pointing to cultural misunderstanding, discrimination, bad home training and low socio-economic level. But the debate boils down to whether the students or the schools are at fault.

The same trend that is seen nationally is also seen in the Baltimore area.

In Anne Arundel County, more than 30 percent of students who were suspended last school year were black, even though blacks make up only 19 percent of the student population.

Anne Arundel school officials signed an agreement in December with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to ensure that race is not a factor in student discipline cases. The county has until Aug. 31 to appoint a committee to review student suspensions and other problems.

In Howard County, more than 30 percent of the suspended students were black, but blacks are just 15 percent of the student population.

And the latest disciplinary report, issued in September, included what Howard school officials described as an "alarming trend:" The disproportionate -- and increasing -- number of black elementary school students being suspended.

Blacks make up 14 percent of elementary school pupils. Yet the 24 black grade school students who were temporarily expelled last year accounted for 52 percent of all elementary school suspensions.

Baltimore and Harford counties report similar trends. So does Carroll County, where 5 percent of the students who were suspended were black, but black students make up 2 percent of the student population.

Ed Davis, Carroll County's director of pupil services, argues that the 53 black students who were suspended constitute too small a number to draw any statistical conclusions.

"When you're talking about numbers that are that small, I'm not sure valid conclusions can be drawn on [such] limited data," he says. "I would hope what we are doing are

suspending for suspendable reasons -- disruptions, whatever -- and that we are focusing on the act and not the person."

Other school officials, while unsure of the cause, believe that the figures represent more than a statistical anomaly.

"The disparity piece is one that keeps troubling us," says Dana Hanna, the Howard school board chairman. "Obviously, some of it is a societal thing and a cultural thing.

"We would like to reach a point where our total delivery of education is even-handed," Mr. Hanna says. "That's particularly why we've been working on several initiatives to identify clearly and rectify the problem."

Donald R. Morrison, Harford County schools' director of information, echoes the sentiment.

"There is no denying the figures," he says. "It's something that we are taking seriously and something we are attempting . . . to mitigate and to take steps to reverse the trend."

Black students are suspended more "because of history and misconceived notions and beliefs that African-American students are going to demonstrate disruptive behavior," said Patricia Morris, dean of Morgan State University's School of Education and Urban Studies. "It has to do a lot with the misunderstanding of culture and low expectations of how African-Americans behave. When persons . . . don't fully understand cultural attitudes, African-American students are often times misunderstood."

On the other hand, Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, says bad home training is more to blame. "We believe the suspension rates are much more correlated to poverty than race," he says. "It seems pretty obvious . . . that poor kids don't know norms of behavior."

Are schools at fault?

Dr. Morris argues that some students act up because of the way schools treat them. Others are punished, she says, for what is, for them, normal behavior.

As an example of misunderstood behavior, she says, African-American students go through what is called stage setting: They have to set up their work area before they're ready to start their lessons.

"Some African-American students take a long time to set up their work area," she said. "It's a notion this has to be here, this has to be there. If you're not aware of that as a teacher, you can see that as delaying task, delaying work, when actually, it's a matter of setting the stage for work."

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