N.C. Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County and the chairman of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, insists he’s not overstating the crisis for black students in North Carolina today.
Not after last week’s report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which showed—once again—staggeringly high suspension rates for North Carolina’s black students.
That report, which prompted a brief but bristling response from a handful of members on the N.C. State Board of Education last week, points to a trend of disproportionate disciplinary practices in the state’s schools, advocates like Pierce say, and with little evidence that the state has a firm plan for addressing the disparity.
“The only thing that’s surprising to me is that we haven’t addressed this head-on,” says James Ford, an advisor to the state board and North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year in 2014-2015.
Ford was a world history teacher at Garinger High, a predominantly minority school in Charlotte, but, last year, he accepted a position as program director for the N.C. Public Schools Forum, a public school research and advocacy group in Raleigh.
Last week’s report showed that black students in North Carolina continued to be significantly more likely to receive short-term and long-term suspensions than their white peers in 2014-2015.
State policies allow for administrators to employ in-school or short-term suspensions, which allow for out-of-school suspension of one to 10 days. More serious offenses could be punished with long-term, out-of-school suspension from 11 days to the remainder of the school year.
The rate of short-term suspensions, about 3 for every 10 black students in North Carolina, more than tripled that for white students. And for long-term suspensions, the rate—about 153 per every 100,000 black students—more than quadrupled the rate for white students, according to DPI data.
The trend stretched across North Carolina, but in its two largest school systems, the numbers were particularly egregious. In Wake County Schools, black students accounted for more than 63 percent of suspensions, despite making up less than 25 percent of total enrollment.
And in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, black students received more than 79 percent of total suspensions, despite accounting for about 40 percent of the student population.
State data does not break down suspension figures to show whether students are being treated equally across race lines for the same offenses, but some school critics have suggested black students are sometimes suspended for offenses that would prompt reprimands for their peers.
Indeed, last week, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told state board members that she believed cultural differences sometimes can play a key role in school suspensions.
“What may be disrespectful in one culture may not be disrespectful in another,” said Atkinson, adding that increased professional development for school staff could assuage the problem.
No matter what, Ford told N.C. Policy Watch this week that he believes “implicit racial bias” is at the heart of North Carolina’s disparity in suspension data, and that state leaders and the State Board of Education have, simply put, failed to adequately address the issue.
“As a board, our job is to scrutinize it,” said Ford. “And we have fallen short.”
Controversy over racial disparities in school discipline isn’t new to North Carolina, or to the United States.
In January 2014, the Obama administration issued a call for schools nationwide to reform their disciplinary practices, insisting too many students were being arrested or handed suspensions for relatively minor offenses.
And in August 2015, the New York Times reported on a new analysis of federal education data at the University of Pennsylvania, which found alarming trends in suspension rates for black students in 13 southern states, including North Carolina.
That report concluded black students were suspended or expelled at rates far higher than their representation in the student body in each of the 13 states. In the worst of the districts, black students were suspended at a rate five times higher than their enrollment.
That report did not escape the attention of North Carolina’s education leaders, particularly given the fact that the state’s largest school system, Wake County, is among multiple systems accused by leaders in the state NAACP of disproportionate suspension practices.
To that end, school leaders in Wake County approved last year what they called a “Comprehensive Plan for Equitable Discipline Practices,” bundled with principal-established suspension goals, a district equity report card, cultural training and more.
“This trend is persistent and pervasive in North Carolina,” Wake County schools Assistant Superintendent for Student Support Services Brenda Elliott told Policy Watch this week. “You can go back 10 years and see the same trend.”
According to Atkinson, the problem requires a range of reforms, like those installed in Wake County, as well as community buy-in. Atkinson pointed out controlled substances and weapons were the top two reasons for suspensions last year.
“So suspensions are not only challenges for our schools, but they are challenges for our communities,” she said.
While the state chapter of the NAACP did not respond to interview requests for this story, Rep. Pierce said the Legislative Black Caucus, a network of state lawmakers of African American and Native American descent, is planning a tour of counties with the best and worst numbers in the suspension data following the primaries.
Pierce said the goal is to learn what some counties are doing right and, more importantly, what they’re doing wrong.
“We are very concerned about it,” said Pierce. “And all of North Carolina should be concerned about it.”
While Pierce wasn’t willing to blame racism for the disparity—arguing, like Atkinson, that cultural differences could be a large factor—other leaders were not so optimistic.
Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., a Democrat from Forsyth County who serves as vice chairman of the House Education Committee, lashed out at state education leaders in an email to Policy Watch last week, arguing that the suspension gap is pushing black students out of public schools and into charter schools and private schools.
“I mean, for the life of me, I can’t fathom why more and more black parents are looking for an exit from public schools that both Democrat and Republican mostly white legislators have allowed to chew up black kids,” Hanes wrote.
Hanes’ district includes the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district, the fourth-largest in the state. According to DPI data, suspensions among black students nearly quadrupled the number among white students in 2014-2015, despite the fact that black students make up less than 30 percent of total enrollment.
Hanes was among a handful of Democrats who rankled some liberals in 2013 when they backed the GOP-launched Opportunity Scholarship Program, a controversial program of public vouchers that helps pay for low-income children to attend private schools, most of them with religious backgrounds.
And with research indicating a correlation between suspensions and drop-outs, Hanes went on to argue that the state’s disciplinary practices may be dealing long-term damage to North Carolina’s black residents.
“We are inoculated against the suffering of Black people and especially their children,” Hanes wrote. “Black lives don’t matter. Black voices don’t matter unless they speak against white voices who demand status quo. If you happen to be poor and white, well, you don’t matter much either because you allowed yourself to get caught in places where black people congregate. The truth is the general assembly really doesn’t care a whole lot about poor people and never has.”
Ford, like Hanes, called for a greater level of analysis on the state’s suspension data, arguing the numbers should be disaggregated to allow for comparisons across race lines for the same offenses.
“If you’re not disaggregating that data according to race, students with disabilities and English language proficiency, you can’t close a gap you’re not looking for,” said Ford. “Whether these policies are a conscious thing or a matter of implicit bias, you can’t flex a muscle you’re not focusing on.”
State education officials may soon have an answer for that complaint. Ken Gattis, a DPI researcher, tells Policy Watch that a committee at the department has been brainstorming possible solutions for the issue for more than a year.
By next month, Gattis said he hopes to have a program online that will allow system superintendents and school principals to access disaggregated figures before making disciplinary decisions. It’s unclear, according to Gattis, whether that information would be deemed public record.
“The purpose is for principals and superintendents to get in there and change things if it looks like the punishments are disproportionate,” Gattis said.
Atkinson said it’s a multi-pronged system of reforms, as well as data analysis, that will pay dividends, adding that she will advocate for greater leverage for administrators to make judgment calls on suspensions, rather than imposing certain “zero-tolerance” rules.
And while Wake County’s reform plan has yet to yield any statistical improvements in the state’s largest school system, Elliott says she’s confident the system will soon begin to close the gap.
“There is a disparity,” Elliott said. “We know we have things to work on.”
Ford said something has to change. He’s fed up with seeing the same, dismal numbers every year.
“And these are more than just numbers to me,” he said. “These are names and faces.”