At an April board meeting, Jothan White, a black 11th grade student at Chapel Hill High, and a classmate stood in front of the school board and said disproportionate disciplinary practices in the district is a reality.
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, last year blacks made up 12 percent of the district’s student population, yet made up nearly half (47.9 percent) of the all short-term (1-10 days) suspensions.
“We want to change that reality,” White said.
Several speakers, black and white, followed White, all asking that the school board adopt a resolution called the School Climate and Discipline Bill of Rights. The resolution, drafted by community members, seeks changes in school policies and offers alternatives to suspensions.
There were 380 total suspensions last year. Of the 380 suspensions, 142 went black males and 40 to black females, mostly for aggressive behavior or insubordination. Hispanic students made up 14 percent of the population but 21 percent of the suspensions.
These students are at risk of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” they said, a phrase coined by education-reform activists to describe what they view as a widespread pattern in the U.S. of pushing students, especially those who are already at a disadvantage, out of school and into the criminal justice system.
Associate Superintendent Rodney Trice, who was recently hired at Wake County Schools for the same position, said district officials have recognized that students of color are being punished harsher than whites students for similar offenses. He said officials are now in training in cultural competence and hope to have teachers and principals do the same.
Asked why students of color are punished harsher than white students for similar offenses, Trice said “schools are a reflection of society.”
“If you look at society, minorities are incarcerated at a much higher rate,” he said.
The disproportionate rates in suspensions of minorities has been a statewide problem, but Jason Langberg, supervising attorney for Advocates for Children Services, said the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has one of the highest disparities in the state.
Advocates for Children Services, a legal service that represents low-income families, filed a complaint last year against Durham Public Schools and Wake County Schools for disproportionately suspending minority students, particularly black students. Langberg said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools remains on their radar.
The district has shown some improvement. The disparity was even greater the previous year. In 2011-12, black students made up 11 percent of the student population but were 61 percent of those suspended.
Some argue that the suspensions have a direct correlation with the achievement gap in the district, which is also among the highest in the state.
Langberg said black students are suspended more often because of implicit biases coming from people making decisions. He said the way to change that is for teachers and principals to change their mindsets about minorities who get in trouble.
“Not viewing people of color as threats or bad apples that need to be controlled and changing that mindset (to the understanding that) these are people with more than their misbehavior,” Langberg said. “They need and deserve our full support. Embrace their potential and energy and really look at their assets rather than their deficits.”
Lalanii Sangode, one of the leaders of the community group, said there needs to be a change in climate.
“That’s where all the behaviors start,” she said. “Culturally sensitive teachers have a sense for how different kids in cultures respond and act.”
Sangode said some teachers are unsure of how to respond to young people of different races when they act out.
“The expectation for a young black boy to sit on a carpet for five hours is unrealistic when his background has been able to be free and learning in a different type of environment,” Sangode said. “Part of that climate is the culture and respect, the tone, and what you feel when you walk into the door.”
Trice said the district officials have always known that students of color are punished harsher, but the district is now taking the necessary steps to address that. He said there are steps and programs in the district’s long-range plan that will address the disproportionate higher rates.
“As educators we have to try to interrupt that system,” Trice said in reference to schools reflecting society. “We can do that because we are working with students every day.”
“But this happens all across the nation, and it’s no different here,” he added.