“Across the Washington Area as a whole, black students are two to five times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students” (Washington Post).
Reading this statistic, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it is discrimination. For a country that is long past the Civil Rights Movement and that has supposedly stepped into a new era of equality, this fact is rather startling, and certainly cause for concern.
Studies conducted in and around the Washington area reveal shocking numbers of their own. Last year in St. Mary’s county, Maryland, one in seven black students were suspended from school compared with one in twenty white students (Washington Post). In Alexandria, Virginia, black students were almost six times as likely to be suspended as white students (Washington Post). Similarly, in Fairfax County, Virginia, black students were four times as likely to be suspended as white students and overall 7% of black students were suspended compared to only 1.5% of white students (Washington Post). Last year in Montgomery County, Maryland, almost 6% of black students were suspended compared with 1.2% of white students. Finally, in the Washington suburbs, of the more than 35,000 students that were suspended or expelled from school at some point during the 2010/2011 school year, over than half were black.
Why so many suspensions in the first place? Since the 1970s, disciplinary policies have become increasingly stricter, especially due to the surge of a zero-tolerance culture. Across the past few years in Maryland and Virginia, discretionary infractions such as disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption, and inappropriate language have been leading causes for suspension. Now, in my mind, this information is the first issue. Although unacceptable, this kind of behavior does not warrant a suspension, especially if only for a one-time offense.
The high number of suspensions, however, brings an eerie legitimacy to the above suspension statistics. The percentages and ratios are not made from a small group of students. Rather, the large pools of suspended students suggest that there is significant truth behind the racial discrepancy evident in the figures, begging the question, why?
Maybe these statistics are expose the fact that certain underlying prejudices still exist, that the United States has not yet truly stepped into the 21st century with regard to racism. Although the Civil Rights Movement managed to attain legal equality, achieving true social equality is a process. It is not easy to change longstanding discriminatory attitudes. Though at the surface level society appears to have, for the most part, left racism in the past, statistics such as those above suggest that deep rooted and even subconscious individual prejudices still linger. Lea Colins-Lee, an African American parent in Prince George’s county agrees with this theory, saying, “I really do think it’s harder for black kids. If they get into a fight, it’s a gang fight. If white kids get into a fight, it’s a disagreement” (Washington Post). She worries about her children in school, having had first hand experience with this entire issue when her son was suspended for placing an extra dessert on his cafeteria tray.
There is a chance, however, that that these statistics have nothing to do with racism at all, at least directly. There are many factors that affect disciplinary patterns. According to experts, the fact that a disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent in the Washington Area increases the chance of certain disciplinary patterns. However, these same experts acknowledge that this fact alone does not completely explain the racial discrepancy in the suspension numbers. Still, these circumstances limit student’s access to highly effective teachers and schools, putting them at a significant disadvantage. Karyn Lynch, chief of student services in Prince George’s County agrees that the racial discrepancy does not necessarily point to racism, saying, “I think some of it is culture sensitivity, believe it or not” (Washington Post). Could it be that as Americans we are trained to look for discrimination in any situation that involves race? Should racism be the first thing on my mind when I see those statistics? Could it be that we are jumping to conclusions and that we are, in fact, just hyper sensitive?
One thing is certain; the statistics show that for whatever reason, a problem exists. The U.S Justice and Education departments teamed up last July to examine the numbers and work towards effective reform. Schools across the metropolitan area have instigated cultural sensitivity training and positive behavior initiatives to take on a more proactive approach towards discipline in general. This February, the district is scheduled to begin a formal evaluation of disciplinary systems to identify disciplinary patterns and attempt to understand the cause for suspensions in general. Carlesa Finney, the school districts director of assurance and human relations says that one of the major focuses will be equalizing and legitimizing suspension criteria. Will these initiatives truly solve the problem? Is this even an issue that can be solved through administrative action? We will find out.