It’s going to take being ‘about that life’ to reduce school suspensions

It’s going to take being ‘about that life’ to reduce school suspensions

- in Education, Top Story

NC education leaders call for better data, improved training and awareness to promote racial equity in schools

Educators must be “about that life” to reduce school suspensions for children of color, State Board of Education (SBE) member James Ford recently told his colleagues. 

That means, among other things, beefing up the state’s “consolidated data report” to include specific incidents that result in suspensions for Black, Hispanic, Native American and mixed-race children at disproportionate rates when compared to their white counterparts, Ford said. 

“At some point, we’re going to have to enshrine in this report information that helps guide us on where our intervention should be targeted,” he said. “We’ve said that equity is a part of our strategic plan. At some point, we’ve got to be about that life.” 

Ford made his remarks amid a candid discussion about school suspensions at the SBE’s March business meeting. 

The remarks came as the board received the state’s annual consolidated data report, which detailed 2018-19 suspensions, crime and violence, reassignments for disciplinary purposes, alternative learning program placements, dropouts and the use of corporal punishment. 

Ford said it’s critical that future reports record suspensions for aggressive behavior, threatening behavior and other subjective offenses where disciplinary responses are left to the discretion of teachers and administrators. 

“If we don’t spell out specifically what these students who are being suspended shortterm or long-term are being suspended for, we are making invisible the way that systemic racism continues to operate,” Ford said. 

Disparate suspension numbers despite an overall decline

State Board of Education member James Ford

The consolidated data report released last week showed a steady decrease in the number and rate of crimes reported on public school campuses. 

Short-term suspensions, those lasting fewer than 10 days, declined 3.8% compared to previous year. Meanwhile, long-term suspensions lasting 11 or more days declined 12.77%. 

While the lower suspension rates are cause for celebration for some, Ford said he could not share in the exuberance because the report “lacks the nuance” policymakers need to develop solutions to address the disproportionate number of suspensions meted out to students of color. 

“We can’t do that unless we’re revealing where those inequities live,” Ford said. 

According to the report  

  • While North Carolina schools handed out 203,298 short-term suspensions in 2018-19, only 110,927 individual students were actually suspended, for an average of 1.83 short-term suspensions per-student.  
  • Of the 110,927 individual students who received short-term suspensions, 70.24% were male.  
  • Of the 110,927 individual students who received short-term suspensions, 49.48% were Black students. More specifically, 32.73% were Black males. White males made up 22.71% of short-term suspensions received in 2018-2019, followed by Black females at 16.75%, and Hispanic males at 8.91%. 

Black students comprise only 25% of North Carolina’s student population. 

SBE Vice Chairman Alan Duncan offered some similar comments to Ford’s, saying  “false narratives” can develop without a comprehensive report that details the reasons students are suspended.  

“The [false] narrative would be that African American students are suspended at a much higher rate – a four times higher ratebecause they misbehave more,” Duncan said.  

He said academic studies show that when Black students and white students commit the same offenses, the penalties are up to four times harsher for Black students than they are white students. 

“Pushing out” children of color

Ronda Taylor Bullock, executive director of we are

In an interview, Ronda Taylor Bullock, executive director of we are, a Durham-based nonprofit organization that works to end systemic racism in education and beyond, said children of color are often written up for minor offenses.  

“Black, brown and indigenous children are overrepresented for offenses such as disrespect or non-compliance with a directive,” said Bullock, who earned a doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Policy, Leadership, and School Improvement Program.   

She added: “In these cases, the cultural identity of the educators may impact the interpretation of the events. By and large, most educators are white and most of the students they are teaching are not. Children of color do not misbehave more than white children, but they are more likely to be written up.” 

And even when white students are written up for misbehaving, Bullock said they are often given the benefit of the doubt. 

“Principals and teachers view them as having a future, one that involves college, and they do not want this blemish on the child’s record,” Bullock said. “On the other hand, Black and brown children are seen as troublemakers because we’ve all been conditioned to believe this, and they are given more severe punishments for similar offenses because their futures are viewed as less hopeful.  

Bullock noted that, nationally, Black girls are among the fastest growing demographic for school suspensions. 

She said Monique Morris, an author and social justice scholar whose work focuses on education, civil rights and social justice, describes the phenomenon as being “pushed out.” 

“Kids who are more likely to be written up, are more likely to drop out,” Bullock said. “Kids who drop out often end up in the criminal justice system. More and more Black girls are experiencing this.” 

The consequences can be severe for Black women who are “pushed out,Bullock said. 

“For Black women, the life expectancy of our infants is directly correlated with whether or not we have a high school diploma,” said Bullock, who is Black. “This is life and death for us.” 

The continuing and stark disparities in discipline piqued the SBE’s interest because the board has made racial equity the centerpiece of its five-year strategic plan and disparities in discipline are incongruent with the board’s equity goals.    

“That is an important part of the narrative that we have to work into this report,” Duncan said of the specific incidents for suspensions. “I understand that hasn’t been a traditional part of the report…but it is as a policy issue something this board through our equity lens and our strategic plan is vitally interested in and I think the citizens of NC are vitally interested in.” 

Duncan noted that 4,262 students were shipped to alternative schools because of chronic behavior problems and 1,747 were sent to such schools to avoid long-term suspensions. 

He said the state’s long-term suspension numbers would likely be higher if not for alternative schools.   

Getting teachers and administrators on the same page

The state’s consolidated data report follows a recent report from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which found Black students who attend North Carolina’s public schools are 4.1 times more likely than their white counterparts to receive short-term suspensions. 

Suspension data often receives a lot of attention because the consequences can be life-changing, particularly for students of color. Research shows that suspensions can lead to academic struggles and increase a child’s chances of involvement with the criminal justice system. 

So, as principals and administrators work desperately to keep students in school, it can sometimes lead to tensions between school leaders and teachers over discipline.   

Tabari Wallace, the principal of West Craven High School

Tabari Wallace, the principal of West Craven High School and former Principal of the Year who serves on the SBE as an advisor, said teacher perception often drives suspensions for subjective offenses.

“As an administrator and principal you want to wholeheartedly support the teachers and make sure they keep control in their class … but when you start to seeing those increases [in suspensions] for disrespect, insubordination, aggressive behavior, threatening behavior, sometimes that [those behaviors] can be misinterpreted due to the lack of crosscultural training,” Wallace said. 

In North Carolina, approximately 80% of teachers are white while nearly half of students who attend public schools are children of color. 

Wallace said diversity training has made a “profound” difference at West Craven High, where referrals for suspension have decreased substantially. 

No longer is three-to-five days [suspensions] thrown at the rolling of the eyes or the smacking of the lips or the nonverbal shaking of the heads,” Wallace said.