Minority students nationwide are two to three times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or face criminal charges for misconduct at school.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released data from 96,000 schools showing that black students are overrepresented in out-of-school suspensions and school-related arrests relative to enrollment.
Those statistics are mirrored locally, including in Moore County Schools. This year, administrators are working to address disparities in how school staff address disciplinary issues.
“In terms of equity, when you look at our data as far back as I’m familiar with, we’ve had those disparities exist,” said Seth Powers, the district’s director for student support services. “Not just in one area, but in multiple areas: discipline, academics in terms of achievement gaps, even opportunities in terms of advanced coursework.”
Overall, the schools would ideally mete out fewer harsh disciplinary measures that keep students out of class and interrupt learning. The district is making progress there. In the 2018-2019 school year, schools logged nearly 5,400 “office referrals,” but that was down from more than 6,100 two years earlier.
Students receiving suspensions are still more likely to be African American. Even though black students comprise 16 percent of the district, they accounted for 40 percent of office referrals and 43 percent of in-school, out-of-school and bus suspensions last year. Just over half of charges brought by Moore County Schools Police involved black students, according to data presented to school officials recently.
On the flip side, 63 percent of Moore County Schools students are white. White students accounted for 40 percent of office referrals and 37 percent of suspensions last year. Hispanic students, which comprise 14 percent of the schools’ enrollment, accounted for 12 percent of disciplinary actions.
“The demographics don’t match the data,” Powers told the school board last week.
“Although the trend across all races for discipline referrals, suspension consequences and charges has seen a steady trend of decrease over the past three years, the percentage of discipline disparities among black and white students has remained generally constant.”
National data released last year shows that black students, both boys and girls, account for a higher percentage of out-of-school suspensions than enrollment, while white and Hispanic girls are much less likely to face severe disciplinary action. White and Hispanic boys account for a proportion of suspensions consistent with enrollment.
Those disparities might contribute to what’s commonly referred to in education as “achievement gaps,” or the lower rates of academic achievement among minority students as demonstrated in test scores and graduation rates. The district is also beginning to collect data on minority students in high school honors, Advanced Placement and community college courses.
Each school’s principal has identified a priority for the current school year — from disparities in the populations of Union Pines students performing advanced course work to a seemingly disproportionate number of African-American boys at Southern Pines Elementary who have been identified as special needs.
“Each of our principals now are going beyond just talking rhetorically about equity and rhetorically about disparity and saying that this is a measure that we’re going to commit to, and if we don’t get it we’re going to have to explain,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey.
“If you go school by school and look at disparity and issues of equity, you’re going to see variation from school to school.”
Schools continue to expand programs like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, which work to address discipline issues by building a cohesive school culture. In addition, administrators are now putting more focus on those demographic disparities. A reevaluation of the district’s student code of conduct, which administrators use in addressing student discipline, could adjust things like maximum suspension guidelines for various infractions.
“There’s discretion built into that to allow our administrators to use good judgment in terms of aggravating circumstances and mitigating circumstances,” said Powers. “This year we’re going to really try to involve as many stakeholders in that as possible just to see if there are pieces that need to be revised.”
A group of Western Carolina University education professors with social justice backgrounds toured the schools this spring, and this year they’re leading quarterly training sessions for principals and assistant principals.
“We have provided specific professional development to principals and central office staff around raising equity awareness, understanding implicit bias and recognizing vulnerable decision points when making discipline-related decisions,” Powers told the board.
Grimesey said that Moore County Schools’ work to create an equitable learning environment for all students is in its early stages.
“We’re not in a big rush just to jam some canned program out there, but to really take the long view,” he said. “These problems have been in existence for a long time, and true solutions are going to require a long-term commitment.”
Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.