No race bias is found in suspensions Poor classwork is main factor, study determines

Academic gap deplored

Black students are disciplined more than whites

January 19, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Poor performance -- rather than race -- is the main factor in student suspensions, according to a new Howard County school system study.

The much-anticipated analysis shows that disciplinary decisions are not racially biased, school officials say.

But school officials -- and leaders of the local chapter of the NAACP -- also say the study points to the need to eliminate the gap in academic achievement between white and black students.

The study, which will be presented to the county school board at its meeting Thursday, was prompted by concerns that a disproportionate number of black students are suspended in Howard schools, a pattern common in other public school systems.

It concludes that the best way to eliminate student misbehavior -- and reduce suspensions -- is to do more to help pupils succeed academically and keep them from falling behind in their classwork.

Well-planned in-school suspensions would be more effective than the typical suspensions that keep students out of school for several days, the study of suspensions in Howard's schools in 1993-1994 concludes.

Howard principals may suspend students for up to five days for such rule violations as fighting and smoking, either keeping them from attending school or requiring them to sit in a separate area outside their classes. Suspensions exceed ing five days may be appealed to the county school superintendent.

In 1993-1994, 3.3 percent of Howard students were suspended, the second-lowest percentage in Maryland and well below the 7 percent state average.

"The report confirms a gut feeling about the role of academic performance in suspensions, and that's the strength of it," said Scott Pfeifer, an author of the study, who has been named principal of the new River Hill High School. "We have shown that the academics piece overwhelms the ethnicity piece."

The study indirectly offers an explanation for the disproportionate number of black students who are suspended each year: their relatively lower academic performance compared with that of white students.

"Race per se is not influencing suspensions, in that students are not going to be suspended because of their race," Associate Superintendent James McGowan said.

"But there are other factors that need to be looked at in the instructional situation."

After the report is presented to the school board, a meeting will be held in March at which board members and residents will be able to discuss the report and the results of recent standardized tests, Dr. McGowan said.

In 1993-1994, black students accounted for 36 percent of high school students who were suspended and 16.6 of the high school population.

In middle schools, black students accounted for 40 percent of the suspensions in 1993-1994 and 15.1 percent of the students. In elementary schools, blacks accounted for 53 percent of the suspensions and 14.1 percent of the students.

The analysis found that "when grade point average, attendance, prior suspensions, gender and length of enrollment are held constant, a student's race or special education status is unrelated to suspension from school."

Mr. Pfeifer said that finding counters assertions that administrators might be racially biased in handing out suspensions.

Natalie Woodson, education chairwoman of the Howard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the link between academic success and student misbehavior emphasizes the importance of continuing to improve black students' academic performance, because a substantial gap persists on standardized tests results between white and black pupils.

"It's sort of like a cycle. When students are not successful academically, then that leads to other kinds of behavior, and it goes on and on," said Ms. Woodson, who added that she had not seen the report.

"It shows how important it is that we continue to work to improve the achievement of our African-American students. When you do that, then the whole issue of suspensions will become more or less moot," she said.

To improve academic success, the report recommends that schools try to intervene earlier when students begin falling behind in their homework.

The report also says that alternatives to out-of-school suspensions should be explored.

In interviews conducted for the report, students called such suspensions "three-day vacations" and said little, if any, follow-up counseling or other help was offered to them.

"We don't need just a room where the kids can sit all day and sleep," Mr. Pfeifer said. "We need a structured program where there can be meaningful intervention. It would be expensive and a difficult decision, but it's something we need to look at."

Although the report hasn't been circulated among principals and assistant principals, its general conclusions drew widespread support in interviews.

"It doesn't cover everything, but I think it's pretty clear that many of the students who are suspended are those who have experienced less academic success," said Stephen Wallis, an assistant principal at Howard High School and a nationally recognized expert on student discipline.

"That's why when kids get in trouble, I always try to look at how they're doing in class and see if we can help them be more successful," Mr. Wallis said.

BTC For example, he said, he often arranges for students in trouble to be tutored by students in the National Honor Society to try to improve their grades.

Among its other conclusions, the analysis of suspensions found that eighth- and ninth-graders are more likely than other students to be suspended for misbehavior or fighting.

The report recommends that additional resources be devoted to helping those students.

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