A 53-member community task force has started work in Richland School District 2 to examine a thorny question: Why does it seem that so many of the school district’s black male students are suspended or expelled from school?
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That issue rose during the recent school board election and was a topic at an October candidate forum. A black parent organization has raised concerns about the significant number of African-American students caught up in disciplinary actions and sent to the district’s alternative school, Blythewood Academy.
The task force is expected to incorporate that question into a wider-ranging examination of the district’s discipline policy, including zero tolerance for certain offenses, and programs that work to head off troubling behaviors before students end up in the principal’s office.
The group is expected to examine the “transition years,” 6th and 9th grades, which seem to trigger increases in incidents of misbehavior.
The panel, which includes police officers, representatives from the solicitor’s office, community leaders, faith leaders, district personnel and parents, is in the early stages of discussion, Cleveland Smith, Richland 2’s executive director of administrative services, told the seven-member school board last week. But the task force will eventually provide recommendations to the district’s top staff.
School Board Chairman Calvin “Chip” Jackson said he looks forward to excavating data that will resolve his chief concern – whether the district’s discipline policy is applied consistently at all five high schools, where the majority of violations originate.
“I’m about making sure that there is a consistent interpretation of the district policy from school to school and infraction to infraction,” he said.
“My question has always been, for example, if a kid comes in with a butter knife in his lunchbox,” he said. “One school sees a butter knife in the book bag and writes it up as a weapon. A teacher at another school sees the butter knife and the peanut butter and the bread and realizes he is making a sandwich and tells the student to remind the mother not to send the butter knife.”
Jackson also said he wants to see how Richland 2, the Midlands’ largest school district, compares in suspensions and expulsions with other districts of comparable size and racial make-up.
“I want to know how far off the mark we are,” Jackson said. The district is compiling those statistics and will make them available to the task force, he said.
Some numbers are already available.
In the 2013-14 academic year, Richland 2 expelled 110 students, which represented about 0.42 percent of the student population of 26,185 students. But district officials say they do not have that figure broken down by race.
During that same period, Lexington 1, the Midlands’ second-largest district, expelled 54 students.
Richland 2’s expulsions have steadily declined, except for one small blip, over the past five years, from 164 in 2009-10, 141 in 2010-11, 129 in 2011-12 and 134 in 2012-13, according to figures supplied by the district. That decline occurred even as the student population increased, said Libby Roof, the district’s communications director. There are now about 27,300 students attending Richland 2 schools.
Statistically, non-white students make up nearly 70 percent of Richland 2, so it would not be unusual if the percentage of students recommended for suspension or expulsion hovered around that mark, Jackson said. If the figure is markedly higher, he and others want to find out why.
The district’s demographics have shifted over the past two decades from majority white to majority black, because of a building boom in Northeast Richland and the migration of black families to the new suburban neighborhoods.
Black students now make up nearly 59 percent of the population; white students, 27 percent; Hispanics, 7 percent; Asians, 3 percent, and multiracial groups about 4 percent.
A “complex” situation
Superintendent Debbie Hamm established the task force this summer, a process that emerged out of conversations with about 50 district employees charged with identifying priorities that the district would focus on this year. The district’s discipline policy emerged as one of the nine priorities.
The task force’s first goal is to understand the issues locally and nationally, including what has become known as the “schools to prison pipeline” where students, often minority and disadvantaged, are pushed through schools and into the criminal justice system. “Zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies are often seen as the first step toward the pipeline.
“It’s a really complex kind of situation,” said J.T. McLawhorn, executive director of the Columbia Urban League and a member of the task force. “This is a national problem. A lot of people think this is just a local problem.”
McLawhorn, who weighed in on Richland 2’s 2011 redistricting process after concerns were raised about concentrating poor black students at one or two high schools, applauded Richland 2 for taking on the challenge.
“They want to go in and dig down and really find out what are the triggers that are contributing to this high percentage of minority students being suspended or expelled,” he said.
He said he hoped the task force explores the need to understand and interact with people of different cultures.
“I think it boils down to teacher training, cultural competency and finding people who can work with students where they are and take them where they should go,” McLawhorn said. “Educators have to know how to relate to students.”
A work in progress
There are three levels of offenses outlined under the Richland 2 board policy.
• At Level 1 are disorderly conduct infractions, including cheating, failure to complete assignments, truancy and use of obscene language or gestures.
Initial punishments include Saturday detention, parent conferences and in-school suspension. Repeated violations can earn higher penalties, including out of-school suspension, referral to outside agencies and possible expulsion.
• Level 2 involves more serious, disruptive conduct offenses.
Those offenses include use or possession of tobacco or drug paraphernalia, fighting, stealing, abusive language to school personnel, vandalism and unlawful assembly, among others.
They result in possible punishments that range from removal from class and in-school suspension to out-of-school suspension, transfer, referral to outside agencies and expulsion.
• The worst level, Level 3, encompasses criminal conduct offenses.
Level 3 infractions include weapons violations, assault and battery, making a bomb threat, sexual offenses, illegal alcohol or drug use, among others, and can result in out-of-school suspension, referral to outside agencies, expulsion and restitution of property and damages.
Roof, the Richland 2 spokeswoman, said most instances of reported misconduct last year fell into the Level 1 category. But the majority of recommendations for expulsions result from the more serious Level 2 and 3 offenses.
There is no such thing as a quick, knee-jerk expulsion without thought for the future well-being of the student, Jackson, the board chairman, and others say. By the time a recommendation for expulsion reaches the school board level, a student and the parent/guardian has had multiple opportunities for appeal and other avenues for assistance.
When appropriate, students are referred to the district’s well-regarded family intervention program, Building Bridges to Success, which provides professional counseling to at-risk students and their families.
“This will always be a work in progress,” Roof said. “We will always be trying to figure out the best way to deal with discipline, and people are always going to have concerns about it.”