Suspension rates trouble schools Figure for blacks twice that of whites

November 28, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Baltimore County Board of EducationSun Staff Writer

Baltimore County school officials are concerned that black students are being suspended at twice the rate of their white peers -- but they're not surprised.

The situation has persisted for at least 15 years, despite recurring attempts to change it.

The numbers are sobering: During the 1993-1994 school year, almost a third of the black males and about 14 percent of black females in county secondary schools were suspended for various infractions.

Most school officials deny any outright bias. They're reluctant to label specific groups and hesitant to put specific causes behind the numbers.

But leaders of the African-American community, including the two black members of the school board, say something is obviously amiss in a system with a black enrollment of 25 percent.

"I'm not casting aspersions that there is something sinister among teachers and staff. I don't think it's a conscious effort to get black kids out of school," said Dunbar Brooks, one of two black board members and the father of three children.

But he added, "Clearly there are teachers who are not comfortable with black kids. There are teachers who don't understand black students, who don't have a clue."

Officials say the forces behind higher suspension rates for black students are complex. They include inexperienced teachers, cultural differences, lower expectations for blacks, intimidating behavior among students and a growing emphasis on safe schools.

"I think that folks really try to be fair to all kids," said Judith Edgar, principal at the Catonsville Center for Alternative Studies, one of five schools for chronically disruptive students. "I think it's a very complex issue."

Adding to the complexity are the administrative discretion allowed in punishing certain offenses and the larger classes in recent years, which can be harder for teachers to control.

Several students interviewed said they had not noticed overt bias among teachers or principals. They said, instead, that some students were repeatedly blamed for bad behavior because of their reputations rather than their race.

"There are some white kids who the teachers will say, 'He did it, because he always does things,' " said Daryl Stokes, a black 10th-grader at Owings Mills High. "Then you may have a black kid who has a nice reputation, like me, and teachers won't believe he did anything."

The school system has a long list of offenses for which students can be suspended for one to 10 days, or expelled for longer periods. Some, such as possession of a weapon, allow little discretion. But when the allegation is "insubordination" or "chronic disruption," the situation is different.

The most common offense that brought suspension last year was fighting, with more than 1,800 incidents.

Newly appointed board member Robert F. Dashiell, who is black, said what others would not: "It would not surprise me that in some instances either the selection of some students or the decision to suspend was made in part because the student is black or white."

Mr. Brooks said the larger problem is that suspensions shortchange black youngsters, particularly males. "If we are suspending one-third of the African-American males, we are relegating them to low academic achievement" because of missed class time, he said.

The issue surfaced in a recent report showing an overall suspension rate of nearly 14 percent for high school students and 12 percent for middle schoolers in 1993-1994. Both rates were up about 2 percentage points from the previous year.

When the figures were broken down by race, 32.9 percent of black males and 16.3 percent of white males in high school were suspended; 14.3 percent of black females were suspended, compared with 5.7 percent of white females.

The disparity among middle school students was even greater last year, when 31.6 percent of the black males were suspended, compared with 13.6 percent of the whites. Among females, 14.5 percent of the black students were suspended, compared with 3.9 percent of white students.

Even in 1992-1993, when the overall suspension rate dropped markedly, the disparity between blacks and whites was the same.

The overall decline may have been an initial reaction to the arrival of Dr. Stuart Berger as superintendent. He has often criticized suspension as ineffective and counterproductive because it removes from school the youngsters who most need to be there. But lacking an alternative, school officials pushed the rate back up in subsequent years.

Other school systems see similar trends. In Howard County, where the overall suspension rate is much lower, black students account for about one-third of all suspensions, but only about 15 percent of the enrollment.

As far back as 1989, a Baltimore County minority achievement committee noted the disparity in suspensions and said it had remained the same since 1979.

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