“You’re setting kids back in a way they might not recover from”

Despite its reputation for exceptional academics and high-caliber students, the CHCCS district, like many others, has its fair share of disciplinary issues each year. At East alone, the 2018-2019 semester has witnessed more than five hallway fist fights, and numerous students have been suspended for various reasons. However, statistics from a 2016 study have revealed that across the district, these punishments have been doled out disproportionately by race, with African American students being affected the most by the imbalance.  

The study, carried out by the Youth Justice Project—a subdivision of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice—revealed that 51.3 percent of suspensions handed out across the CHCCS district were given to black students, compared to 23.6 percent received by white students. This difference is even more concerning due to the fact that, as of 2017, just 11 percent of the CHCCS student population was comprised of black students, while 51 percent was white. Additionally, the study, also referred to as a “racial equality report card,” found that African-American students during the years in question were nearly 14 times more likely to receive suspensions than their white counterparts.

Apart from the toll that this phenomenon can take on the mental health of black students, numerous Southern Coalition officials believe that several instances of collateral damage have been induced by the disproportionate suspension-giving as well. Wanda Hunter, lead organizer for the Racial Equity Institute, is certain that the time spent at home by suspended students is detrimental to their lives in general, referencing how such individuals are “turned off by school,” “deprived of opportunities for learning,” and are more likely to drop out. However, Hunter believes that a combination of the racial equity report cards and student input can help administrators find a solution to such problems.

“Our district stands out as one of the worst in the state in terms of racial inequity in educating African-American and Latino students….This shows up in the large gaps in end-of-grade test scores and in discipline disparities,” said Hunter. “CHCCS has a reputation for excellent schools, but we cannot consider our schools excellent until they are serving all students in an equitable way. A lot could be learned by getting direct input from students and parents of color about this issue. We need to be doing a better job of engaging those who are most negatively impacted by the situation in helping to come up with the solutions.”

CHCCS has been taking steps over the years to combat the suspension disparity, both at the student and administrative levels. The Racial Equity Club and MSAN, among others, focus on starting discussions about and raising awareness about the issue. According to district superintendent Pamela Baldwin, the school system has a “detailed equity plan” based on the report cards set to reverse the trend of injustice against black students.

“The racial equity report card is nicely organized, but unfortunately the information is not new to us,” said Baldwin in an interview with the Daily Tar Heel. “We recognize our shortcomings regarding racial disproportionalities….[Our] plan addresses this issue by breaking it down into three distinct areas: culture, curriculum and instruction. If we neglect any one of these areas, we will fail our students.

East principal Kenneth Proulx is aware of the study and believes that when students are suspended from school, their time away from the classroom only serves to increase the achievement gap. However, the principal is confident that his administrative team’s policies moving forward will lead to a reversal in this trend.

“Even at the board level, suspension data has been presented….Everyone is aware of the disparity, and at East, we’re doing what we can do to make sure that we’re fair and trying to close that gap,” said Proulx. “The achievement gap is my number one priority, and I think as we shrink it, the discipline disparity will decrease as well.”

Proulx has made it clear that he does not enjoy doling out suspensions to students, calling it “the least favorite part of [his] job,” but acknowledges that the punishment is sometimes necessary. He agrees with Hunter that the collateral damage caused by suspensions can be quite severe, and hopes that fewer students will be kept out of school in the future.

“There are times that kids need to be suspended, as much as I hate it….We want kids to be in school, but we want to provide for a safe environment,” said Proulx. “Any student that is suspended is missing academic time, but the other major consequence is that you put a fracture in the relationship. One of my most important things to promote student success is to create lasting relationships with students. At the end of the day, what you want when you’re dealing with a student is that it doesn’t happen again.”

It is a common belief across the district that the suspension disparity is rooted in racial discrimination. Instructional Coach Nick Winstead agrees with such claims, and like Proulx and Hunter, acknowledges that the effects of the disparity reach far and deep.

“I think there is some cultural, unintentional bias….A lot of discipline data around the nation shows that African Americans and Latinos are suspended for a lot of subjective things, like being in the wrong place or being disrespectful,” said Winstead. “We need to look at what behaviours we are interpreting as being loud, or being disrespectful, or being in the wrong place, and why we are suspending students of color at higher rates. When you do that, you are setting back generations of certain groups of children in a way that they might not be able to recover from.”

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