School officials in Baltimore County are unnerved by it; in Howard County, they're studying it. In Anne Arundel, they're under a federal agreement to fix it. The problem they and many other school systems share is a huge disparity in the levels of school disciplinary actions against black and white students. Black students are suspended at triple the rate of whites nationally.
To say this is a volatile issue is to understate the case. Some observers, particularly black parents and scholars, believe the schools have difficulty communicating with black youths. Teachers are loathe to take the blame for yet another social problem dumped in their laps. Meanwhile, communities are clamoring for more effective discipline.
One can argue the cause of this imbalance or whether it deserves fixing. What one can't dispute is the dramatic gap between black and white suspensions. In Baltimore County, for example, a full third of all black males in secondary schools were suspended at some point last year -- a figure reminiscent of the stunning finding several years ago that more than half of all young black men living in Baltimore city were at some stage in the criminal justice system. (In Baltimore, where four of every five students are black, the rate of black suspensions is higher than whites proportionately, although the city removes from school far fewer students overall than most jurisdictions.)
Some people will contend that school discipline can't be a black or white matter, that the more schools apply kid glove treatment the worse off they'll be. Interestingly, the Maryland school systems with the highest suspension rates aren't the more urban counties. Nearly half the school systems in the state suspended more than a tenth of its students -- all in rural counties (including a whopping 26 percent in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore.) Meanwhile, none of the state's "Big Seven" metropolitan jurisdictions suspended more than 9 percent last year.
Taking ever more students out of class isn't the answer, though. The poverty and family dysfunction that produce ill-equipped students are problems the schools are powerless to affect. Yet as shown by the Baltimore County numbers, a great disparity in discipline by race can be found even in the most stable and middle-class black neighborhoods. Racism may not be the cause, but there seems to be a cultural chasm between black students and largely white staffs that the schools must work to close.