Expulsions remain high for blacks They make up 38% of those expelled, 18% of school population

'We're wrestling with it'

Trend continues despite federal plan being implemented

August 02, 1998|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

Blacks continue to make up a higher proportion of the students expelled from Anne Arundel County schools than they do in the overall school population, worrying educators and civil rights watchdogs.

Of 534 students expelled during the 1997-1998 school year, 203, or 38 percent, were black. Yet only 18 percent of the school population is black. The expulsion figure represents a slight increase over the 1996-1997 school year, when it was 36.6 percent, but is slightly lower than that of the 1995-1996 school year, when the proportion was 38.7 percent.

The relatively stagnant figures are alarming, said longtime civil rights activist and former Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden.

"If those numbers have been consistent in the past three years, then clearly the school system is consistently doing something wrong," Snowden said. "Somebody has to be saying, 'Wow, wait a minute.' "

Snowden said the statistics, released last week by school administrators, are particularly disappointing since Superintendent Carol S. Parham agreed in 1993 to a federal plan to prevent racial bias in discipline cases.

That agreement came after the Anne Arundel County Coalition of Tenants, including Snowden, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in 1991 claiming bias in the suspensions and expulsions of black students. The department did not find racial bias in the discipline process, but Parham agreed to a set of measures to address the issue.

The Board of Education will review the annual report on discipline statistics, including the number of expulsions by race, at its meeting Wednesday at school headquarters on Riva Road in Annapolis.

School of- ficials say they are disappointed and concerned by the numbers.

"We're trying really hard to attack some of these issues successfully, and we're just not making the progress that any school system wants to make," said Kenneth P. Lawson, associate superintendent for instruction and student services. "We're not ignoring this issue; we're wrestling with it."

Anne Arundel school officials have been wrestling with the problem at least since 1973, when parents' complaints of bias led the Office of Civil Rights in what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to rule that black students were discriminated against in discipline cases in county schools.

That finding led a committee of community leaders and others to develop a discipline code for the school system designed to eliminate racial bias in decisions on suspensions and expulsions.

In the 1993 agreement, officials established a committee to review expulsion cases to ensure that all procedures, such as notification of parents and explanation of the appeals process, were followed fairly, according to Huntley J. Cross, special assistant for student discipline.

Officials also added a statement to the code of student conduct requiring administrators to apply the code "fairly and equitably," reported discipline statistics from Glen Burnie and Annapolis high schools to the U.S. Department of Education, instituted diversity training for teachers and stepped up efforts for peer mediation and conflict resolution.

The department's Office of Civil Rights, which had not found racial bias as a result of the 1991 complaint, was satisfied with the school system's efforts and ended its oversight three years ago, according to Lawson.

But the Disciplinary Sanctions Review Committee still meets, and in the coming school year will expand its duties at Parham's insistence, Lawson said.

The committee will look at more expulsion cases and review extended suspension cases, those where students are barred from school for more than 10 school days. And in addition to reviewing due process and paperwork, the committee will review the facts behind the discipline rulings.

"We're not asking them to second-guess the principals, but we are asking them to confirm that the case warranted expulsion," Lawson said.

But preventing discipline problems would be better than reviewing expulsions and suspension cases after they occur and statistics every few months, said school board President Carlesa Finney. Other parts of the problem are less tangible and can't be solved with a simple program, she said.

"I think there are still some bias and attitudes in the system, [though] I think lots of people have come a long way," she said. "There is nothing legislative- or regulations-wise that can change that. It's someone's perception and their subjective decisions" about which students should be expelled and which should be suspended.

Rene Swafford, president of the Anne Arundel County Coalition of Tenants, the advocacy group that filed the bias complaint in 1991, said the organization still monitors discipline cases but has no plans to file another complaint.

Her organization, which often sends representatives to court with tenants, still counsels parents on how to navigate the appeals process in school discipline cases and, in the case of expulsions, how to ensure the child is re-enrolled in school.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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