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EXCLUSIVE: Black S.C. students suspended, expelled three times more often than whites

African-American students were three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students in S.C. public schools last year.

The same was true in Richland 2 schools. That district became the focus of a heated national debate about school discipline last fall after a video went viral of a white sheriff’s deputy wrestling a black Spring Valley High School student from her desk and tossing her across the floor.

The student, in trouble for refusing to put her phone away, and a black classmate, who filmed the incident, were charged with disturbing schools, a charge that can lead to being suspended or expelled. Their cases are pending.

Black students have been more likely to be suspended or expelled from S.C. schools for at least a decade, The State newspaper found in reviewing discipline records for the state’s more than 80 school districts.

Two Midlands districts – Lexington-Richland 5 and Richland 1 – ranked third and fourth in the state for suspending blacks at higher rates than whites from the 2004-05 to 2014-15 school years, The State found. Richland 2 ranked 16th.

The racial disparity comes as no surprise to parents, educators and school discipline experts.

But why that gap exists is harder to explain, educators and experts say.

“It’s the $1 million dollar question,” said Debbie Hamm, superintendent of Richland 2. “I can’t say that I understand the reasons. ... You see similar gaps in crime in the adult population. Schools are just a reflection of the society and culture that surrounds them.”

Class and cultural differences between mostly middle-class teachers and students – many African-Americans who live in poverty that affects blacks disproportionately – drive the gap in discipline, some say. Those differences sometimes are fueled by poor parenting that reinforces behaviors that get students in trouble at school, some add.

Harsh disciplinary policies and a reliance on law enforcement to police students also are to blame, others say.

However, some African-American parents suspect black students are being targeted.

A group of black parents in suburban Richland 2 is clamoring for change, pointing to the deputy-student confrontation at Spring Valley and a sense that black students are far more likely to face harsh discipline from white school leaders.

“We’re getting complaints every single day from parents,” said Stephen Gilchrist of the Richland 2 Black Parents Association. “It’s overwhelming.”

But black students in Columbia’s Richland 1 school district – where, unlike Richland 2, most teachers are black, too – are even more likely to be suspended or expelled, The State found.

Most of the students in both the Richland 1 and 2 school districts are black.

Last year in Richland 1, where 54 percent of teachers are minorities, black students were suspended and expelled at far higher rates than black students in Richland 2, where 68 percent of teachers are white.

Part of that disparity could be due to the different socioeconomic makeup of the two school districts, experts say. Seventy-eight percent of Richland 1 students live in poverty, compared to 54 percent of Richland 2 students.

Richland 1’s strict discipline policy also likely is to blame, Gilchrist said.

Unlike Richland 2, Richland 1 has a list of zero-tolerance offenses. Commit one of those offenses – including disrupting a school or school bus, assaulting a school employee, selling or distributing drugs or alcohol, or having a firearm on campus – and the recommendation will be expulsion, the school system’s policy says.

In Richland 2, the disciplinary policy is more open-ended about the possible penalties a student can face for an offense. However, that lack of clarity leads some black parents to think their children receive harsher discipline than other students, Gilchrist said.

Richland 1 school board Chairwoman Cheryl Harris said her large district’s mix of urban, suburban and rural students may contribute to the difference in disciplinary trends between Richland 1 and 2.

Richland 1 is trying to change some of its policies to curb its suspensions and expulsions, she added. But the discipline policies also are in place to ensure students have a safe learning environment.

“I’m not going to say it’s too restrictive,” Harris said of Richland 1’s discipline policy. “We do deal with those issues sometimes that we don’t want to have to deal with.”

‘This is a national issue’

Statewide, fewer students are being expelled and suspended than a decade ago.

Educators and experts point to efforts to change disciplinary policies to focus on preventing poor behavior and teaching students how to act.

But not much has changed about the suspension and expulsion gap between white and black students, who consistently have been suspended and expelled more often over the last decade.

After the Spring Valley incident, Richland 2 became an example of excessive school discipline practices cited by local and national critics – from Democratic presidential candidates to former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Despite that attention, Hamm said Richland 2 is not unique. “This is a national issue.”

Richland 2’s suspension and expulsion rates have dropped over the last decade.

Last year, 10 percent of Richland 2’s black students were suspended, down from 14 percent in each of the two prior years. The district’s suspension rate for white students also dropped to 3.5 percent in 2015 from almost 6 percent in 2005.

(Both numbers may be overstated. State records do not indicate how many suspended or expelled students are repeat offenders, meaning it is possible that the same students are being disciplined repeatedly and counted more than once.)

Richland 2 started reviewing its disciplinary policies two years ago, a year before last October’s deputy-student confrontation became national news. As part of that review, the district formed a task force – made up of school, parent and law enforcement representatives – to look at its policies. It also formed a student-advisory council.

A recently hired diversity officer and behavioral specialist are training educators to use discipline as a chance to teach students positive behavior, rather than resorting to removing them from school, officials said.

The district also is re-evaluating the role of the law enforcement officers who serve as school resource officers, and providing training to deputies and school administrators about how to deescalate tense situations with students before they become physically confrontational or result in criminal charges.

Hamm said the goal is to keep students in the classroom.

“If kids are out of school because they are suspended or expelled, they’re not learning. We’re not helping them. We need kids to be in school.”

Richland 1 officials also say revisions to that school system’s disciplinary policies are underway.

Richland 1 Chairwoman Harris said depending on the violation, a student now may be given the option to enter a program and stay in school. For example, for simple drug possession or alcohol use, students who enroll in treatment programs can come back to school, she said.

Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said the goal is to keep students in school. “We want students to graduate and do well, which means they have to be in school.”

However, last year, Richland 1 suspended or expelled the highest percentage of its students overall of any Midlands district, sending nearly 14 percent of its students home last year. Black students in Richland 1 were four times more likely to be suspended than whites and 10 times more likely to be expelled – far higher than the state average.

Witherspoon said Richland 1 is aware of its high suspension and expulsion rates, and is working to lower them. As evidence of those efforts, Witherspoon said some recent disciplinary hearings have resulted in students returning to the classroom, instead of being suspended or expelled.

Class, cultural differences at play

Several educators and experts said class and cultural differences between teachers and students are to blame for high disciplinary rates among African-American students.

“This cultural disconnect goes far beyond color,” said Hugh Harmon, another member of the Richland 2 Black Parents Association and a Richland 1 elementary school assistant principal.

Harmon said middle-class teachers, regardless of race, may move swiftly to discipline minority students because they do not understand them, rather than trying to get to the root of their misbehavior.

Children are raised with different ideas of what is good and bad behavior and, as a result, face different consequences in school, Harmon said. For example, students sometimes curse in school because they curse at home without punishment or have parents who curse around them, he said.

Poverty also exacerbates discipline problems, said Harmon, who runs an after-school program aimed at helping African-American boys learn appropriate behavior and build self-esteem.

Historically, African-Americans have experienced hardship socially, politically and economically, said Winthrop University education professor A.J. Angulo.

“That restricts their ability to build up the kind of social capital and financial capital” they need to demand change from institutions that affect them, Angulo said.

“You can say it’s race, and that can be a factor,” Angulo said.

But, he added, “It’s also about class. A principal is going to be less likely to confront the president of the PTO (parent-teacher organization) than the parent that never comes to school.”

Columbia Urban League president J.T. McLawhorn said racial stereotyping sometimes is a factor, citing a study that his organization did several years ago.

“A black child in a classroom who is very talkative was labeled as being disruptive whereas a white student who is talkative was labeled as being inquisitive,” McLawhorn said, citing an example from that study.

Also, trauma that students experience – living in foster care or in high-poverty areas with violence – impacts their behavior and learning, he said.

McLawhorn said he works frequently with at-risk African-American youth, trying to “provide an encouraging environment.”

“Some of them start acting up, and we know how to relate to them,” he said. “Why is it that some educators have more problems with the same children, and others don’t have any problems at all?”

Finding a cause, placing blame

Some in the Richland 2 Black Parents Association suspect racism is driving disciplinary practices.

Florene Hanley-Fulks, a member of the black parents group, said the racial gap in discipline reinforces her perception that some administrators expect black children to fail and, therefore, punish them more harshly. “What’s driving that statistic is the mindset of the administration.”

The Black Parents Association was formed in 2014 to push for more minority representation on the Richland 2 school board and to air concerns that black parents said were being ignored. Since then, the district’s seven-member school board has added a fourth black member. The parents group also was invited to sit on the district’s task force reviewing discipline policies.

Richland 2’s demographics changed after African-Americans migrated into the largely suburban Columbia district, said Gilchrist of the black parents group. But, he added, the school district “still hasn’t come to grips with the fact that there’s a large minority presence in Richland 2 that has gone unnoticed.”

Gilchrist dismisses the possibility that class is a major driver of racially skewed suspension and expulsion rates, adding that talking about cultural differences is the same as talking about race.

“These are not poor parents. These are not low-income parents” who are complaining of “very punitive measures leading to their children being suspended and expelled for frivolous stuff,” Gilchrist said.

“It’s not like kids are bringing weapons or drugs (to school). They’re playing pranks and those kinds of things.

“So, then, the question becomes: Are we utilizing the disturbing-schools act and its lethal interpretations to target certain students to be removed from our schools?”

The impact of zero tolerance

The disturbing-schools law that the two Spring Valley students were charged with has come under fire. However, bills introduced in the State House to change the law appear to be going no where this year.

Despite that, some school districts say they already are moving away from zero-tolerance, one-strike-and-you’re-out disciplinary policies.

Born out of the war on drugs, the zero-tolerance policies “migrated to education in the early 2000s as a result of the kind of things we saw at Columbine,” said Winthrop’s Angulo, referring to the deadly 1999 Colorado school shooting that spawned a nationwide re-evaluation of school disciplinary and security policies.

But as districts try to move toward preventing poor behavior, shedding zero-tolerance policies may be easier said than done.

Harmon, the Richland 1 educator and Richland 2 parent, said he has seen students suspended or expelled for behaviors “that don’t even come close” to what he witnessed as a teacher in New York, where “students were talked to” and educators tried to correct behavior.

For example, Harmon said that when he was a Richland 1 teacher, a student forgot to remove a hunting knife from his book bag. As the student was pulling books out, the knife spilled out onto the floor. Richland 1 policy said the student had to be referred to a school resource officer.

Another student with an intellectual disability had to be referred to a school resource officer for bringing to school a toy gun that “didn’t even look real,” Harmon said.

The student was “a severely special-needs kids. He was playing. He had a cool toy that he wanted to bring to show his friends – he didn’t even understand what was going on,” Harmon said.

Fortunately, he added, neither student was suspended. But both had to deal with law enforcement and an incident report – experiences that have negative impacts on children.

Working to reduce “exclusionary discipline practices,” such as suspensions and expulsions, is a step in the right direction, said Chris Christle, a University of South Carolina special education professor who has researched school discipline.

But success will depend on how much training and dedication school districts commit to changing their disciplinary culture, the USC professor said.

“The people who are making the disciplinary codes, the rules and the consequences, I don’t think they fully understand the principles of behavior,” Christle said. “A lot of people think that suspension is punishment, but it’s not punishing unless the behavior is reduced or stopped.”

Educators need strategies for intervening that encourage positive behavior and give students support to succeed. But as school districts face tight budgets, chances diminish to train educators to see discipline as an opportunity for student learning and growth, Christle said.

The result is some districts may be paying only lip service to reform efforts. While some districts say they are changing their disciplinary practices, “many schools may not be doing it with fidelity.”

Suspending S.C. students

Statewide, black students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students last year. A look at the S.C. school districts where black students were most likely to be suspended, compared to white students:

Hampton 2: Black students were 7.3 times more likely to be suspended than white students

Charleston 1: Black students were 5.7 times more likely to be suspended than white students

Lexington-Richland 5: Black students were 4.2 times more likely to be suspended than white students

Richland 1: Black students were four times more likely to be suspended than white students

S.C. Public Charter School District: Black students were 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students

SOURCE: State analysis of S.C. Department of Education data

Discipline in S.C. schools

The State reviewed a decade of suspension-and-expulsions records for S.C. schools and found:

▪  Statewide, black students were three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled last year

▪  Lexington-Richland 5, Richland 1 and Richland 2 had the highest gap between black and white suspension-and-expulsion rates in the Midlands

▪  The racial gap has persisted over a decade, despite a drop in overall suspensions and expulsions

SOURCE: An analysis of S.C. Department of Education data

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