Black students suspended more often

 
Monday, May 10, 2004
April McClellan- Copeland

Plain Dealer Reporter

Twinsburg- School administrators say they treat everyone - white or black - fairly in discipline cases.

Superintendent James Jones said black students are suspended at a higher rate than white students because a bigger share come from disadvantaged homes. He said he did not have statistics to show how many.

As of March 9, black students at R.B. Chamberlin Middle School had received 66 percent of this year's 115 suspensions. Those students make up only 23 percent of the enrollment, school records show.

At the high school, 46 percent of the suspensions went to black students, who represent 24 percent of the students.

A 2000 Indiana University study of another Midwestern district that is much larger than Twinsburg concluded that high suspension rates for black students most likely indicate "evidence of a pervasive and systemic bias."

The widely quoted study, "The Color of Discipline: Source of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment," found that high suspension rates could not be blamed on poverty or the suggestion that black students misbehave more than white students.

Professor Russell Skiba, who co-authored the study, said it also found that more black students than whites are referred to the office for less serious reasons such as disrespect to teachers and loitering.

"In our study, black students received consequences fairly. They got the same number of days of suspension as white students," Skiba said. "But the trouble was, they were twice as likely to get referred in the first place."

Jones said he had not heard of Skiba's study but would like to review it.

He noted that black students' graduation rates have improved from 75 percent in the 2000-01 school year to 96 percent last year, which he said demonstrates that the schools successfully train students.

"We've told the community, the principals and the teachers that we are not going to let the kids disrupt or interfere with the learning process," Jones said. "We've implemented fair, but high standards."

But Mary Cooper, whose son attends Twinsburg High School, and other parents contend that the district's discipline policies are too harsh and are enforced unfairly with black students, particularly black boys.

Cooper's son was disciplined last fall for fighting in the cafeteria with another black student over a carton of milk. The other student was suspended as well. Both attended the district's off- campus alternative program and served 90 days' community service for what amounted to a minor schoolboy fight, Cooper said.

Bonita Chavis believes economic class came into play when her son was beaten in December by another black student, an athlete who lives in a more expensive housing development than Chavis' family.

The boy hit her son nine times in the face but was suspended for only three days because of his stature on the basketball team, she said.

Another black parent, Tania Lardell, said her children's experience in the school district has been good. But Lardell, who grew up in Twinsburg Township and attended Twinsburg schools, said she is concerned because some in the community believe that black students are treated unfairly.

Lardell, the office administrator for Twinsburg Township trustees, worries about whether her children will encounter problems when they go to the high school.

"This is not about a group of people coming together to scream and shout," said Lardell, who attended two parent group meetings to discuss the discipline of black students. "The school district needs to look deeply at what is being said and look at the pain and frustration of the families. They want to be treated fairly."

Many parents consider the issue of school racism too touchy to discuss publicly. Ten people interviewed for this story did not want their children's names published, and at least five of them did not want to be identified themselves. Some said their children would be targets if they were identified for the story.

Told of the concerns, Jones threw back his head and laughed, saying the fear of retaliation was ridiculous.

The superintendent said he and Cooper talked about the incident involving her son, but "we're not going to back off of what we thought was appropriate discipline."

Cooper is not satisfied. "I know there are kids with issues, but you can't tell me it's all black kids," she said. "The white kids' issues aren't addressed the same way and not blown up as it is with our kids."

Last week, Cooper, Chavis and parents Robert Miller, Ron Smith and Anthony Turner met with Jones to discuss the disparities in student discipline. The group, which calls itself Twinsburg Citizens For Diversity, wants the district to begin diversity training for staff.

Jones promised to work on any problems. "I think our administration and staff are fair and equitable in handling discipline for all of our kids," he said. "But if there are concerns involving our kids or with parents, we'll look into it and try to get better at it."

In Indiana, a three-year federal project called the Safe and Responsive Schools Project helped decrease suspension rates in the 11 Indiana schools that participated.

The project, which Skiba co- directed, used alternatives to suspension such as peer mediation, anger management and programs to stop bullying, which also proved to be effective in improving school safety.

Twinsburg High School has anger management and peer mediation, Jones said. Chamberlin has a peer mediation program but not a formal anger-management program or a program to prevent bullying.

"The districts that make the most progress take the data seriously," Skiba said. "If they look at the data and say it's the fault of the parents and the kids, the system is not willing to take some fault and bring an end to the disparities.

"When the local school district says, 'We don't like the data and we're unhappy with it,' and begins the process of changing it, this is the point when you begin to see improvement."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

amcclellan@plaind.com, 330-908-2993

2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission