Investigating the racial divide with school punishments in NC schools

Racial disparity in student suspensions

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - New data shows black males are getting suspended at a higher rate than white males in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) district.

Last year, there were 22,196 short term suspensions in CMS. Of that number 12,461 of those suspensions were for black male students compared to 1,159 for white male students.

"That's what we call disparity difference in treatment," former CMS teacher James E. Ford said. "Preferential treatment for folks who are doing the same thing. It's an area where you can't be easily dismissive of the issue. We need to peer a little deeper into that."

Ford is former North Carolina Teacher of the Year and now works for Public School Forum of North Carolina. His organization is looking deeper into the problem, reviewing data, and determining if more needs to be done to make sure all students are being treated fairly.

"It's a national problem," Ford said. "It's been around since the 70s since the beginning of integration. I don't know why we fail to do something about it and why we don't see it as an urgent problem."

Ford says he will take that suspension data and determine how to make a difference in the suspension numbers.

"Holding districts accountable," Ford said. "Schools accountable for how they address that problem because as of right now - it is as if it doesn't exist."

CMS sees the disparity in suspension and school board chairperson Mary McCray says something has to be done.

"Making sure that every staff person, our teachers are being trained with juvenile justice." McCray said. "We are also making sure our discipline policies are being followed."

McCray also believes you have to look at where the suspensions are happening and examine the racial makeup of the schools that are getting lots of suspensions.

She says CMS will look at the numbers closely in an upcoming board meeting. She is also concerned suspension numbers that are happening at the elementary school level.

"It seems like we got to better equip our teachers with how to handle minor infractions and so they don't escalate," McCray said.

Disproportionate numbers at state level

The suspension rate concerning black and white students are disproportionate on the state level as well.

Last year, there were a total of 209,777 suspensions. Of that number 118,737 were black students and 55,099 were white students. When it comes to aggressive behavior last year 19,874 black students were arrested compared to 8,107 white students.

"If it's left up to the judgement of an administrator or teacher, that leaves a lot of room for implicit racial bias," Ford said. "What's aggressive to one person may not be aggressive to another."

The Executive Director for Council for Children's Rights, Bob Simmons, is also concerned about the numbers.

His organization represents students who are entering the judicial system. Simmons says nearly 80% of the students he deals with are black.

"When children are subjected to suspensions out of school it has an adverse effect with their education," Simmons said. "It makes it more likely they will have trouble. It results in more dropouts and that feeds into the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal system."

Simmons tells WBTV he is helping CMS with the proper training, but he admits there is a challenge.

"It's very difficult to be sure that every employee of the system receives the training," Simmons said. "Including the dismantling of racism and implicit bias training."

Another challenge is when employees who have completed the training leave.

"As employees turnover on a regular basis, you need to then bring the training up to speed to the new employees," Simmons said. "You lose the value of what you had in the employees who leave."

The experts and educators are not saying not to suspend students when it is warranted, but they believe all students should be treated fairly and have the same options.

Ford says parents of white students do things that can help prevent their child from getting suspended while black parents may not exercise that option.

"A parent can intervene and say my child may be guilty of this infraction, but please don't suspend them and or please don't press charges," Ford said.

Ford tells WBTV that sometimes works. He hopes more thought will go into suspending a student. He believes if a suspension is warranted then ok, but if teachers and administrators are suspending because of their implicit bias, that is wrong.

He fears that will label the student and that could lead to a loss.

"We're less likely as a society to benefit from the gifts and the talents that they have," Ford said. "We don't get to watch them take that into the workforce. We don't get to experience them contributing to society."

Ford says another interesting thing in the state data shows more white students are charged with reportable crimes than black students, but other crimes that are at the discretion of administrators, more black students get in trouble.

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