Politics & Government

Are NC schools biased against black students? New report points to suspension rates.

Racial equity report cards of North Carolina school districts show black students are more likely to be suspended and sent to the court system than white peers. Southern Coalition of Social Justice says data shows racial inequity exists.
Racial equity report cards of North Carolina school districts show black students are more likely to be suspended and sent to the court system than white peers. Southern Coalition of Social Justice says data shows racial inequity exists. News & Observer file photo

A civil-rights group is calling on North Carolinians to look at racial inequity in school discipline and student achievement at the same time they honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend.

The Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on Friday released “racial equity report cards” for the state and for individual school districts showing that black students are more likely to be suspended and referred to the court system than white classmates. The group says the data, when coupled with how black students are on average lagging academically, is a “call-to-action” to address racial inequity in North Carolina.

“The racial disparities that persist in our schools are a tough pill to swallow, especially on the eve of a holiday celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr,” Peggy Nicholson, director of the Youth Justice Project, said in a written statement. “However, we hope the Racial Equity Report Cards can serve as a launching point for community education and discussion.”

The report cards use public data on academic achievement, school personnel, school discipline and juvenile court involvement. You can find the report card for the state or for your child’s school district at youthjusticenc.org/our-work/racial-equity-report-cards/.

Statewide, black students received 57 percent of all short-term suspensions, even though they made up only 25 percent of the student population in the 2016-17 school year.

In addition, the report cards found that, statewide, black students were 4.3 times more likely to receive a short-term suspension than white students. The rate was higher in 17 districts, including 13.9 times more likely in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, 9.7 times more likely in Durham Public Schools, 7.5 times more likely in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and 6.8 times more likely in Wake County schools.

Nicholson said in an interview Friday that it’s not a case of black students misbehaving more than white students. She said that some white teachers, who make up 79 percent of the state’s teachers, are letting white students slide for the same behavior that they’d discipline a black student for doing.

Nicholson pointed to studies, such as those done by N.C. State University, that showed that teachers viewed student behavior differently based on a student’s race.

Among the changes the Wake County school system has made is to provide teachers and administrators with training on cultural proficiency to better relate to students of different backgrounds.

But Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, cautioned against assuming bias on the part of teachers and administrators.

“I don’t think there’s compelling evidence that teachers and administrators are acting out of racist motives or to punish students disproportionately,” said Stoops, a former teacher. “I think it’s best to err on the side of trusting teachers and administrators who are in schools everyday.”

The report cards come at a time when the role of student discipline is being debated nationally and locally.

A federal school safety panel led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recommended in December rolling back the 2014 guidance issued by the Obama Administration that warned school districts they could be investigated if minority students are suspended at disproportionately high rates.

The Obama era guidance is credited with helping lead to a reduction in suspensions nationwide. In North Carolina, suspensions have dropped 16 percent since the 2012-13 school year.

The report from the Federal Commission on School Safety contends that the Obama era guidance “has likely had a strong, negative impact on school discipline and safety.”

Nicholson disagrees that using suspensions is an effective way of dealing with student discipline issues.

“Suspensions don’t work in terms of effectively addressing student behavior,” Nicholson said. “It doesn’t address the student’s behavior and it doesn’t help other students in the school building with learning.”

Stoops said he agrees that schools should look at alternatives to out-of-school suspensions for some infractions. But he said it’s jumping to conclusions to say that black students are suspended more because of racism.

“It’s best to look at the individual circumstances involved and determine whether the teacher and the administrator were justified,” he said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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