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Inconsistent discipline

Discipline for minority groups off balance at Frederick County Public Schools

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One day back in 2009, Lissette Colón’s sixth-grade son came home from West Frederick Middle School and announced he had been suspended for a day.

Colón was puzzled. Her son had never before run into disciplinary problems. Her son told her that another boy had stabbed his friend with a pencil. So Colón’s son jabbed the boy right back.

Maybe not the best choice, Colón said. What confused her though, was the fact that the first boy, a white child, had not been suspended, while her son, who is Hispanic, had, her son informed her.

The principal at the time couldn’t offer her much information, citing student privacy, Colón said. And so her son served his one-day suspension, but Colón said she was left feeling uneasy.

“I felt like I had nowhere to go,” she said. “I felt as if there was an unfairness, I would never know. It made me wonder if there was anybody checking these things … I just didn’t feel like I advocated correctly at the time.”

Colón’s story takes place six years ago, but she said she still hears from her children, who are still in Frederick County Public Schools, of discipline being doled out inconsistently among students of different races.

Colón’s claims are supported in data, at least as far as out-of-school suspensions are concerned.

Minority populations, racially or otherwise, are all suspended at a higher rate than their white counterparts in Frederick County Public Schools, according to school demographic which was obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request and reviewed by The Frederick News-Post.

School officials couldn’t offer an explanation for this persisting phenomenon, other than to say the problem is complex and mirrored across the nation.

Officials, in multiple interviews, pointed to myriad of remedies they’ve started rolling out to attempt to address school discipline and school climate across the board, though these do not specifically target minority populations.

Local advocates have started collaborating with FCPS, and said part of the answer lies in cultural awareness and diversity training for FCPS teachers, which school staff has already planned to implement. White teachers outnumber minority teachers, but training, advocates said in interviews, could help teachers better grasp the background of minority students.

Students have given testimony to top administrators, including Superintendent Terry Alban, that teachers have made them feel unwelcome because of the color of their skin.

Student demographics

Demographics

During the 2014-15 school year, 4,670 black students were enrolled in FCPS, according to data provided by the school system. Data indicates 344 black students were suspended – equating to a little less than 7.5 percent of the entire black population.

Black students comprise 11.6 percent of the overall student population, according to FCPS data.

A total 567 white students, who comprise roughly 63 percent of the entire student body, were suspended.

This means just 2 percent or so of the overall white population was suspended.

Hispanic students were not suspended at a disproportionate rate.

Data shows, too, that only 10 percent of FCPS students are designated special education, but 30 percent of all the suspensions in the previous school year were special ed students – 354 students with disabilities were suspended.

Students enrolled in free or reduced meals make up only approximately 24 percent of the population, but accounted for 49 percent of the 1,139 suspensions.

Getting to work

Acknowledging that this discrepancy is a problem, one the school system wanted to fix, staff formed a committee of 20 or so school systems employees, said Kathleen Hartsock, director of student services, and a member of the committee. No one external to the school system was included.

This committee, formed in 2011, would meet for three or so years to talk discipline, but its members never determined a reason for the disproportionate suspensions, Hartsock said.

One study from the research arm of the U.S Department of Education, determined this was a statewide trend. Some have hypothesized that the source of this disproportionality was poverty, or racial stereotyping, among some explanations, the study stated. The study examined student discipline data across Maryland from 2009-2012.

Teaching teachers

FCPS has done a good job trying to whittle away at this problem, said Jay Mason, president of Eliminating Achievement Gap, Inc.

The school system has partnered with his group, which, as the name suggests, seeks to end the academic disparities between students of different demographics. In mid-September, the school system will sponsor a back-to-school night, which will assist families with little experience with the nuances of school, like college applications.

Mason said he’s also aware that the school system wants to weave diversity talks into teacher trainings.

One goal of the school system is that 100 percent of the school’s instructional leaders should participate in at least four learning sessions on “cultural proficiency” by July 2016, said Mike Markoe, the FCPS deputy superintendent.

The school system brought in Bonnie Davis, who has authored multiple books on the subject of understanding other cultures, to speak to staff. One of the books is titled “How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You.”

Teachers should receive such training because they don’t always understand their students, Mason said.

As of mid-August, only 14 of the more than 150 new teachers the school system has hired this school year identified as minority.

At one of the monthly EAG meetings before the school year ended, a group of black students in advanced courses in multiple county high schools told attendees about their classes, and how they felt their teacher hadn’t respected them because of their race, Mason said.

“I guess they felt like they weren’t welcome because they were black,” Mason said.

Superintendent Alban was at that meeting. She later recorded those statements of those students and presented the video to principals, said school spokesman Michael Doerrer. Stopping teachers’ personal biases from bleeding into the classroom starts with the superintendent setting an example, said Doerrer.

“The mindset of the African-American society, culture, hasn’t been uplifted,” said Mason, who is black and grew up in the county. “It’s been put down a lot.”

What’s in a suspension?

Principals at any school may suspend a student up to 10 days in a unilateral decision. School administrators tend to want to avoid this, however, because the child loses out on classroom time, Hartsock said.

If a principal wants to suspend a student for more than 10 days, the administrator will contact the student services department within FCPS central office. After the student or parents meets with several different parties – any involved teachers, witnesses to the student’s indiscretion, administration – Hartsock makes the final decision whether to prolong the suspension.

An extended out-of-school suspension lasts from 11 to 44 days. Anything after 44 days is labeled expulsion, according to Maryland state regulations. If a student is placed on extended suspension, then staff will typically provide that student with a home tutor for that suspension period. Hartsock said 30 extended suspensions happened this past school year.

Central office staff generally can’t overturn a decision of a principal, Hartsock said, per Maryland regulation.

“We don’t take suspensions lightly. It’s typically not the first reaction for a school administrator to provide an out-of-school suspension for a student,” Hartsock said. “Typically, [if a student] is going to have a suspension, many other things have already been tried, many other interventions.”

Discipline changes

School system staff has explored a menu of options to address this problem, and while the strategies are multitudinous, FCPS isn’t throwing solutions against a wall to see what will stick, said Doerrer. Rather, each child comes from a unique background and should be catered to as such.

Staff has pointed to FCPS discipline regulations that were amended last fall as a key way to reduce suspensions.

After the state revised its regulations, so did the school system to match the state’s, said Kevin Cuppett, executive director of curriculum, instruction and innovation for FCPS.

These changes allowed for more latitude on the individual school administration’s part.

Prior to changes, if a student committed a particular infraction, administrators were locked into the punishment they had to dispense. Now, the regulations allow them to not jump to suspension right away, but try other interventions.

“If you look at the old regulation versus the new regulation, you can see the new one allows for more individual attention and attention to specific circumstances of each child, which is what I think will allow principals to be more flexible,” Doerrer said.

Some infractions still result in swift suspension or expulsion, like possession of firearm.

The new FCPS discipline regulations were rewritten at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year though, and the problem with suspensions still continued.

Positive Behavior Interventions

In addition to behavioral plans for individual students, some high schools have adopted strategies to ensure good behavior as a result of the committee work started in 2011, Cuppett said.

Some elementary and middle schools have adopted this type of framework, known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, said Hartsock. An example of a PBIS school hallmark is encouragement of a particular set of rules, like good hallway etiquette, or conduct in the cafeteria, Cuppett said.

Research suggests that a majority of children require little support to ensure they’re behaving well in class, Cuppett said. A second, slightly larger tier might require some attention, a visit with the school counselor, for instance. The third tier, which is generally less than 5 percent of the population, needs the more intensive supports.

“If we can get one child to move one tier, it’s a success,” Cuppett said.

Board of Education hasn’t talked about it

The Frederick County Board of Education has not discussed the topic of disproportionate suspensions formally, said board president Brad Young. Though, the board, in general, has deemed equity a priority, he said.

In his personal view, Young said that some students’ home lives may factor into behavioral issues.

Young’s mother was principal of Hillcrest Elementary, he said, and Young said his mother frequently dealt with families where the adults worked multiple jobs and couldn’t parent all the time. Hillcrest maintains a majority Hispanic population and a high number of impoverished families.

“We can’t always look to the school system to fix problems,” he said. “And so, we have to do everything we can do to support parents and enable them to do the right things, but we only have them for six, seven hours.”

Mason, of the EAG, in a separate interview, agreed, noting that half of his work deals with the school system, the other half with families. Some, he said, have never attended college. Some haven’t even finished high school.

“Some parents didn’t like school,” he said. “So they don’t teach their children that school is important.”

Extending a hand

Colón sipped a hot chocolate at a Dunkin’ Donuts early one morning as she hoisted her daughter, a toddler, into her lap and talked of how she desperately wants outreach for families. She hears stories of suspensions like her son’s not often, she said, but inequity in discipline and programs all the time.

A Spanish girl in a school will be called out right away for a dress code violation, like wearing shorts too short, said Colón, who is PTA president of Hillcrest Elementary School. The white girls will get away with wearing something skimpy, she said.

Some families can’t access the Internet, Colón said. Many can’t speak English. These barriers present major problems when trying to work out with the school system why a child might misbehave, she said.

“I’ve been advocating but nobody is listening,” Colón said. “It’s time for some cultural awareness classes or training or something … You see the kindergarten kids start out with such enthusiasm but as they go forward, it’s less and less exciting for them because the opportunities aren’t there, so they get discouraged. Maybe it has to do with the parents, but it also has to do with keeping them engaged.”

Follow Jeremy Bauer-Wolf on Twitter: @jbeowulf

(35) comments

johnqFrederick

Maybe if we get these kids to listen to more Rap music and watch more MTV . . . oh, and feed them more Rx to calm their nerves

MSAMV55

So what is the solution to this "problem" going to be? Setting up discipline quotas by race, with any violations in excess of the quota being excused and allowed? That would make the "disparity" go away, but would it improve the overall environment in a school for anyone? Of course not. It would lead to chaos.

Also, the alleged statistical disparity cited appears to really only apply to African American students, not minorities in general. Why is this being danced around and not stated clearly?

And a secondary premise of this article seems to be that teacher and school administrators are inherently racist, handing out suspensions because of the color of a student's skin. If that is so, why do white students account for almost half of the suspensions, and why are the suspension rates for the other minority groups not higher?

swimrun2

If minorities are not following rules, they should be punished. No exceptions.

DeDeuceCoupe32

Funny how the same folks comment. When it comes to hispanics being positive for the county, they are all for it. But in a heartbeat they will throw hispanics under the bus when they compete for the devotion of FCPS over their little darlings. Kharma folks, kharma.

FrederickVeteran

The public school system is failing our young people, parents should have more educational options for their children especially AA children considering the awful results the public schools have afford them and the cost taxpayers have bestowed on public school employees for doing such a terrible job.

DeDeuceCoupe32

Ah yes, but throw more money at teachers and it really looks nice on paper. This isn't the 70's 80's or 90's yet those teachers are still there. Think about that for a moment. Young new doctors are far wiser than house call doctors were.

annimal

I totally agree that these parents should have more options for their students. Some charter schools form specifically to address the delicate issue of discipline and education disparity among races. The teachers are united in their approach and it is the same across the board, no matter background or race. The power is in the parents! Not the school system because parents are choosing to send their children there. In turn, this would make the neighborhood school have to get better since the funding would follow the student. Parent choice is the key to keeping our kids educated, safe, and performing better in school.

MAVRICKinc7

How many more excuses can be found by the white MAJORITY of Frederick County to artfully dodge their racist, bigoted and silent descrimination practices this article brings to market? How many of our commenters are providing distractions from the truth of the matter and disguising it as something that speaks to their own personal prejudices that remain the same LIE we've been telling ourselves for centuries, to this very day.

Instead of running away from this problem that clearly exist, why not admit you are the problem, and will remain the problem. If our audience can't see beyond theses statistics, then how can any of us recognize there is a student population that is reaching out for help, albeit through violence and exchanges of fists, that also want to be recognized and know no other way to be recognized, but to act out, only to be ignored by US, and our segregationist educational system, by sending them home so teachers and admininistrators don't have to be bothered by their own bigotry, that Frederick County has sworn a silent oath to for generations.

What all the fuss is about, is being found out what we've been for generations and generations to come. We stretch the idea is being a welcoming community. when all we do is dance around with our personal prejudices and discrimination and anecdotal recall that cotinues to simmer on our mind's back burner, almost to the point of boiling over.

"weedsinfrederick" said it best. Let's invest out time an energy to EXPLORE the avenues of thought and causality of this statistical and disclosure, rather than running away from the conclusions this article has described with NUMBERS and a "chasm" away from the reality that WE are the problem, not those reaching out, through anger, to make themselves just as visible as those claiming not to bigots, white supremist, or EXCLUSIONARY to core values that speak only to discrimination at every corner of our minds, from one day to the next. Isn't that what the LIE is all about; another LIE?

DickD

Personally, I feel it is more a matter of culture and what is expected in school, vs. what the parents expect from their children at home. Look at the areas for discipline: fighting, knives in the school, firearms, drugs, etc. and there is no study that compares it on a basis of income and family support - a mother and father in the home. They all make a difference.

I am glad they have started to look at ways not to suspend, because I frankly don't see how a suspension is discipline. Discipline should be punishment, sending a child home disciplines the parents, not the child. I am in favor or doing something different, like keeping the child after school, not letting them do favorite things, like PE, making them come in early, no before or after school activities, etc. Punish the child, not the parent. Sending them home from school, as discipline, is not educating a child.

Now in some cases more severe punishment is warranted, such as putting them into special schools. Each case should be judged on the specific cases basis, not some hard written rule. Of course, a hard written rule is easier for management - teachers and principals, to justify their actions - a defensive measure for them, not discipline for the child.

FrederickVeteran

So you believe that a chasm exists between the AA community and the FCPS why subject AA student into the fray?

DickD

I don't understand the question or who you are asking. If you were asking me, I don't think there is a chasm between FCPS and the AA community. Nor am I sure what chasm you are referring to.

FNP-reader

My experience with this issue is that my daughter found TJHS to be unsafe due to serious threats from a gang of AA girls. I met with school officials but they were unable or unwilling (I was never sure which) to take action to provide a safe school environment. She finished HS elsewhere.

weedsinfrederick

This article is horrible. To put more responsibility on teachers and FCPS for the actions of the AA community is just misplaced. Teachers are there to teach their subject area, not to become community activists worried about being accused of being racist if they suspend a student of certain race if they act out. As my daughter who goes to FCPS said when I had her read this article: "They are suspended more because they act out more"..... Out of the mouth of babes is the answer.

Now, why they act out more is a completely different subject, how about an in depth article on that FNP??

DickD

Very valid point and what difference would it make if the teacher and the student are both black, as FV wants. The only difference I see is the black teacher is less likely to take any nonsense from a black student, in which case suspensions could go higher. I am against suspensions, because I feel they are more of a reward than punishment to the child.

FrederickVeteran

Allowing them to instruct their own will put the onus them, I can't see how they could do a worse job than a 55% graduation rate, soaring special ED rates and suspension rates.

FrederickVeteran

If administrators are disproportionately administering discipline to minority students is it unreasonable to assume that they're also shortchanging students academic experience?

DickD

I think suspensions as punishment does exactly that, it means the child being disciplined will miss classes. There has to be better ways.

FrederickVeteran

Correct me if I'm wrong but I believe Dr. Carson attended segregated public primary schools and predominantly all black secondary schools. I believe that the facts are overwhelming clear that desegregation has stifled black student academic achievement and inhibited white student acdemic progress.

DickD

What facts are you referring too? I don't feel blacks are doing less nor do I know how to prove it, one way or the other. Some blacks have always done good, no doubt about that. I do believe putting underachievers with above average achievers raises the scores of the underachievers, even if it might cause the over achiever to get slightly lower. But I really do not see how desegregation has stifled blacks and that has not been the position of the NAACP up to now. You might want to read this article on school desegregation.
http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/sepbutequal.htm

wind chaser

I guess our educaters are supposed to give them a break because of their race or family issues at home or cultural differences, No excuses !

Nicki

Bring back corporal punishment.

jerseygrl42

Hey Jeremy, what about the behavior end of this issue/non issue.....not one word...thats not very good reporting and your screaming headline is NOT even matched by your own charts...it seems to be "off balance" whatever the devil that means, for only ONE minority group.....kinda similar to the prison inmate off balance...see any trends here Jeremy.....maybe you should write about the balance or out of balance one - parent families, that make life more difficult for youths or the out of balance use of drugs that adds to the problem.....I guess in your mind Jeremy the education folks are racist as are the juries and the police ...lets condemn society in its entirety while we are at it ./..you need to listen to Dr. Ben Carson if you want to find the truth on this issue.....your report is TERRIBLE and you should be ashamed

sevenstones1000

Instead of worrying if another student should also have been suspended, tend to your own child. Here's how to avoid suspension: obey the rules and lose the nasty attitude. It's as simple as that. Work hard to teach your child that.

If you can show me that students who are following instructions and studying hard are being suspended for no reason, then we can talk about discrimination.

gdunn

Finally someone gets it! The only real problem here.

kimberlymellon

Lissette, Thank you for speaking out on this important issue!

Whatajoke14

Agree with Frederick veteran!!

tonyc51

Another interesting statistic shown in the graphs is the dramatic drop in disciplinary action from 2005-15, either the students have become less disruptive, which is not borne out by facts, or the political correctness being forced onto society is making it more difficult for teachers/administrators to deal with it, thereby increasing the occurrence, while lessening the discipline.

Another side also could be that environmental factors such as family (breakdown in the AA community), entertainment options(rap glorifying violence, etc) may be exacerbating the problem.

As stated by a previous poster, until a study is done on the rates of discipline handed out for the same offense by group, little is gained by this conversation.

DickD

This article and the postings are far from complete, it is just scratching the surface.

FrederickVeteran

I believe because blacks students have a higher propensity to be suspended their parents must stress anger management and appropriate conflict measures in the home. I also believe that desegregation should be dismantled and a separate public school system should be created for black students this will accomplish two goals 1. Maintain classroom order and academic performance for all students 2. target and improve black academic performance. The current public school model where 55% of blacks graduate from high school is a failure it's time to accept the obvious, that 45% of black students in public schools don't matter to their parents, teachers or voters.

DickD

But, FV, that is what busing was all about, to get black and white children going to the same school. It is not perfect, but the old stated reason was separate but equal was not equal. Now you say it is, which is contrary to what has been said for years.

Now, it is obvious that blacks like other blacks more, in the general sense, same for whites, but we are a large country and we need to work and live together, not separately. We need to work on this.

bpsws

These numbers are worthless. Only a study that compares suspension numbers of White students to that of AA or Hispanic for the same offenses can one imply there is an injustice. It appears that there might have been in the case cited in this article, however. If there is an inconsistency in discipline actions based on race, then the problem is easier to fix. We have never done a good job of training educators about the cultural aspects of minority groups. Years ago, the BOE spent thousands of $$$ on training by Ruby Payne in how to work with students of poverty. We haven't heard that resource referred to for years. The same is true for Character Counts, Peer Mediation, Conflict Resolution training. One needs only to look at the shootings in Baltimore and D.C. to see that students and educators could benefit from these programs. I also wonder how many Whites are shooting and killing each other in these cities. What happens in schools reflects what is happening outside of the school building.

tonyc51

[thumbup]

DickD

How about the Big Brother program, did anyone raise that for the deprived children?

FrederickVeteran

Most educators and law enforcement just aren't adequately equipped to deal with hopeless improvised youth in a society chocked with constant inappropriate suggestive messaging, racial acrimony, daily violence and poverty shaming.

DickD

Yes, that is a problem I don't know the answer to either. How do you determine when to take a child out of the home, to give them a better chance in life? I know social services deals with it all the time, but it is a difficult problem.

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