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.
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.
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.”
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.”