Guidelines on racially biased student punishment resonate in Durham
The Obama administration’s recently released guidelines for school discipline garnered praise from education experts and local officials.
The guidelines urge schools to create “positive climates” that focus on preventing misbehavior, reducing the number of suspension days and ensuring that school discipline is applied fairly.
“This work is timely for our community,” said William Sudderth, Durham Public Schools director of public information. “The emphasis on improving school climate, promoting positive behavior, setting clear and consistent expectations and treating all students equitably are all in line with our efforts to reduce suspension rates, particularly among African-American males and students with disabilities.”
The guidelines are intended to address the high number of suspensions in recent school years, which disproportionately affect black and minority students and students with disabilities. During the 2011-12 school year, black students—who make up approximately 26 percent of the total North Carolina student population—accounted for 56.8 percent of short-term suspensions in the state, according to the North Carolina Bar Association.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction reported that for every 10 male black students enrolled, 5.22 were suspended, and for every 10 male American Indian students enrolled, 4.28 were suspended.
The National Center for Education Statistics found that nationally in 2007, approximately 43 percent of black students, 22 percent of Hispanic, 16 percent of white, 14 percent of American Indian and 11 percent of Asian students in sixth through twelveth grades had ever been suspended or expelled.
In 2013, Durham Public Schools received a series of complaints alleging that the schools punished black students and students with disabilities at higher rates than their peers. Advocates for Children’s Services of Legal Aid of North Carolina and Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of the University of California, Los Angeles filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against Durham Public Schools last year. The complaint revealed that black students were four times as likely to be suspended as white students and that among black students with disabilities, over 37 percent were suspended at some point.
“The Office for Civil Rights is still investigating Durham Public Schools,” said Peggy Nicholson, an attorney for ACS. “They haven’t reached any resolution with the federal government that will end the investigation. Hopefully, there will be additional steps taken by the community to address the issue.”
Some education experts have praised the new guidelines as a step toward reducing suspension rates and for initiating a long-due national conversation.
“I think they set a bar,” said Barbara Jentleson, assistant professor of the practice of education. “There’s a very important conversation to be happening, and I’m hoping it’ll lead to the development of more supportive practices for our students.”
Jentleson spoke from her own experience as a former principal of an alternative school in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. She said that black and minority students were frequently excluded from classrooms for misbehavior, but that the majority of cases involved minor infringements that were often negotiable.
“I’ve probably only had a few non-negotiable [situations],” Jentleson said. “Certainly, bringing a weapon, drug dealing—those are my non-negotiable cases. Everything else, I wanted to have a range of responses depending on the child.”
Jentleson encouraged school administrators to address as many discipline issues within school walls as possible.
“If a student is not in school, you can’t really address what is going on with him,” Jentleson said. “You’ve got to minimize the amount of out-of-school time. For example, if a student is fighting in school, it’s important first of all to find out why they’re fighting and secondly, help them develop new social skills to deal with that. There’s a great deal of research to say it’s possible.”
Natalie Beyer, a Durham Board of Education member, said that Durham Public Schools are currently working to address issues with discipline and hopes that the release of new guidelines will bring positive change. But she noted that the guidelines are an indication of a national phenomenon, not just a local one.
“The Board of Education and our administration acknowledges that this is true, and that anybody who looks at the data can see that the data is lopsided,” said Heidi Carter, Durham Board of Education chair. “This situation is not unique to Durham, and that’s why the federal government has released the guidelines. Durham Public Schools have been working to reduce suspension rate in general for some time now.”
The Durham Board of Education hosted a series of well-attended community conversations following the complaint, Carter said. She added that part of the responsibility resides with the Durham community to address their children’s problems outside of school.
“We serve a high minority and poverty student body,” Carter said. “I do think our community needs to do a better job of addressing factors that lead to suspension.”
She added that Durham Public Schools currently employ graduated school discipline policies, which ensure that the severity of punishments correspond appropriately to the type of misconduct. Principals are expected to look at mitigating and aggravating circumstances and apply punishment accordingly, Carter said.
Jane Wettach, clinical professor of law and director of the Children’s Law Clinic, noted that students generally were spending far too many days in suspension and suggested that racial discrimination may unintentionally play a role.
“It’s hard to know, but there could be some discrimination going on, where school administrators, whether consciously or unconsciously, tend to impose school discipline on African-American students more regularly,” Wettach said. “There have been several studies that suggest there is some bias, and that students of color tend to be disciplined more severely.”
Although Durham Public Schools have not yet implemented policies directly in response to the new guidelines, officials are hopeful that the issue of school discipline will receive more attention and resources in the future.
“We’re always looking for continuous improvement in that area,” Beyer said.