A Conclusion Demanding Courage

September 09, 1994

Black students in Howard County schools are suspended at a rate far out of proportion to their overall numbers.

The simple recitation of this fact is enough to elicit all sorts of explanations -- not to mention emotions -- ranging from the supposedly scientific to the out-and-out racist. And while theories are plentiful, the causes of this phenomenon in Howard schools -- not to mention in countless other school districts -- remain a mystery.

Is it strictly a matter of poor student behavior? Are blacks treated unfairly in school systems that are predominantly white? And, if an answer can be derived, what then?

Given these unanswered questions, we would normally welcome the kind of study that school officials in Howard have decided to embark upon. A suspension rate for blacks that is grossly out of whack at all grade levels begs analysis. The community undoubtedly wants answers.

But in seeking answers, the community must also be mindful that it is asking school officials to accomplish what could well be impossible; a conclusion that is unflaggingly honest, yet one that avoids inflammatory assertions that undermine the quest for solutions.

No matter what school officials determine is the cause of the suspension rate, their words will be closely scrutinized by those who fear they are the ones being blamed for the problem. This is true whether officials conclude the root cause is black student misbehavior or the unfairness of teachers. Unfortunately, in matters of race, there is apparently little that can be discussed openly without incendiary results.

If Howard County can chart a course through this racial minefield, it will have earned a distinction that has eluded large parts of this country for hundreds of years.

Given this fact, it would not be surprising if school officials were already leaning toward something more neutral to explain the suspension rate of blacks. But going to the core of this problem, while painful, even wrenching, is the only way to solve it.

In the end, what's important is not whether school officials have the courage to reveal the truth, but rather whether the community has the courage to accept the message and move forward.

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