Suspension rates for black students out of line, says NAACP

Local and state NAACP leaders are concerned by a report showing that black students across Georgia were suspended from school last year at higher rates than their white counterparts.

“There’s a huge disparity in terms of gender, race and ethnicity,” said Jennifer Falk, the state education chairwoman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Earlier this year, the NAACP asked the state Department of Education to compile a report examining the number of students in each county who had been suspended during the 2007-08 school year, then sort the findings by race, gender, age and whether students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

The report led to an NAACP analysis showing that there are often wide disparities between the percentage of a school system’s black population — including Bibb and Houston counties — and the percentage of overall suspensions of black students. The percentage of suspensions should generally mirror the student population, Falk said.

In Bibb County, the public school population is about 75 percent black and 25 percent white.

But among Bibb’s 5,327 suspensions, about 89 percent were black students and 9 percent were white students during the 2007-2008 school year.

“We don’t know why,” said Al Tillman, president of the Macon-Bibb County NAACP chapter. “But there’s a serious problem.”

The numbers could mean that more minority students are missing out on classroom assignments, that there are unequal discipline practices or that more minorities are sent to alternative schools, the leaders said.

“Of course, when they are in violation of weapons or found with drugs, they should be (suspended), but if it’s for excessively not wearing a belt, we can’t separate these young men and women from their peers,” Tillman said.

Of Bibb’s 5,327 students suspended during the 2007-2008 school year, 4,754 were black and 464 were white, with the rest other ethnic groups.

Sixty-three percent of the students were male, 86 percent of them were from low-income families, and 72 percent were suspended for disorderly conduct offenses, according to the report. Most of Bibb’s suspended students were between the ages of 10 and 15.

When they’re disciplined, Bibb students first face in-school suspension for such infractions as truancy to repeatedly not following classroom or school bus rules, as well as other offenses.

The subject has drawn plenty of attention in Bibb school circles.

“All eight of Bibb’s school board members, at our last retreat, identified school discipline, alternative school and the code of a conduct as priorities for the school district,” said board member Tommy Barnes.

“In the coming months, we hope to do something very out of the box to provide an alternative through an ombudsman program. We don’t want students to misbehave in the classroom, but we also don’t want students who misbehave to miss out on academic opportunities,” he said.

That program, scheduled to start this fall, will remove unruly students from the classroom but allow them to stay on track academically.

Mack Bullard, who oversees student discipline for the Bibb County school system, did not return phone calls for comment on the report.

Among Houston’s student population of 25,677, which was 54 percent white and 35 percent black in 2007-2008, far more black students were suspended than white students, the report showed.

Among Houston’s 442 suspensions, 61 percent were black students and 31 percent were white students.

“In terms of the school system, discriminating based on race, no, that doesn’t happen in Houston County,” said James Kinchen, Houston’s director of school operations. “I strongly believe socioeconomics is the key factor. It just so happens more minority kids are in that low socioeconomic group.”

Often, students from low-income families don’t have the same support at home with parents to teach them about behavior, he said.

Whether the disparity is attributed to educators using unequal application of disciplinary rules or a lack of parenting, the NAACP leaders say what is more worrisome is what happens to suspended black students.

“Our concern is students moved out of the classroom for typical adolescent behavior,” Falk said.

Students who commit severe crimes should be punished, she said, but she contended that school officials should look at other alternatives rather than suspending students for less severe infractions such as dress code violations or glaring at a teacher.

Often, in-school suspensions are not supervised adequately, there may be limited book supplies or computers, and student assignments can fall through the cracks, which helps keep black children behind, she said.

NAACP officials say they just want parents and communities to be aware of the statistics and for school officials to examine their disciplinary practices to make sure they are fair and not causing children to fall behind.

“We know that if a child is not in a classroom, they are not learning,” Kinchen said. “We will continue to look for ways to keep all kids in class all the time, but we want to make sure we don’t allow discipline to deteriorate by allowing students to disrupt other students.”

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.