Some Georgia students are pushing state and federal education officials for changes they hope will reduce a wide racial disparity in public school suspensions and expulsions.
A group of students is working to meet with Georgia Superintendent Richard Woods to discuss the issue. Their demands include requiring all schools to end zero-tolerance policies where students are disciplined without any discussion, and training teachers to become more aware of any biases that may result in them disciplining black students.
A 2014 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that while African-American students comprise 37 percent of Georgia’s public school students, African-Americans make up about two-thirds of the students suspended or expelled. On Thursday, a Brookings Institution study found black students are twice as likely to receive corporal punishment as white students.
A recent University of Pennsylvania study on the disproportionate number of black students suspended or expelled in Georgia and other Southern states has drawn national attention, and the ire of some local black students. The Penn study caught the attention of Columbia County middle school student C.J. Pearson.
Pearson, 13, requested the meeting with Woods after reading the study. Pearson, an eighth-grader at Columbia Middle School, near Augusta, gained national prominence last year for his conservative views and video verbal swipes at President Obama. Pearson, who now describes himself as a political independent, is using the Twitter hashtag #blackstudentsmatter to raise awareness about the student discipline disparity.
Pearson and other students believe racial discrimination by some teachers is one reason behind the disparity.
“The gap in school discipline based on race is egregious,” said Pearson, a self-described “serious kid” who said he worked on Woods’ campaign in 2014. “I see progress we can make. I see this as an issue everyone can get behind.”
Georgia State University freshman Deundre Eberhart, 18, has joined Pearson on the Twitter campaign. Eberhart says he was unjustly suspended from an unnamed Fulton County school last year because he missed several days of school while recovering from surgery.
“It’s an epidemic,” Eberhart said of discipline disparities. “Until we address it, we can’t work on anything else.”
A top state education official who oversees school disciplinary issues said the department is concerned about the disparity, but believes Georgia is making progress due to several recent meetings with community leaders to discuss school discipline and a program aimed at improving classroom behavior that is now in about 600 Georgia schools.
“We think improving school climate is one way to address the disproportionality,” said the official, Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent for external affairs.
State data show school expulsions have been cut in half since 2009 as school districts have steered from zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. School districts have reduced out-of-school suspensions, and many of them instead use in-school suspensions, which keep students on school grounds.
Georgia officials say most suspensions are due to classroom outbursts, such as mouthing off at teachers, or being caught with drugs on school grounds. Expulsions typically involve physical assaults or carrying a weapon. Students can appeal a suspension or expulsion to the state Education Department. Since 2014, about 90 percent of those cases have been upheld, state data show.
Why black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates is not often thoroughly addressed in research. Federal education officials have cited racial discrimination as a factor. Pearson and other students cite stories of black classmates suspended or expelled for offenses while white students get lesser punishment or none at all.
Victoria Streets, 14, cited an incident last year in Gwinnett County as an example of unfair treatment. Streets said a friend, who is African-American and Hispanic, was ordered not to come to school for eight days for fighting. The other girl in the fight, who is white, was not disciplined, Streets said.
Streets is part of Gwinnett SToPP Leadership Institute, a group critical of some school disciplinary efforts. She’s working with about 20 students in the group who have lobbied state and federal lawmakers over the past year to enact programs that will explore why some students misbehave in class. They also want more peer-mediation programs in schools.
“I’m hoping to impact some more kids’ lives and helping them to understand what to do” if they get in trouble, said Streets, a Brookwood High School student.
Meanwhile, Pearson met last month with Columbia County school board member Mike Sleeper.
“I told him if there is any case of unfair treatment, we would look at it,” Sleeper said. “Students receiving the same infractions should receive the same punishment.”
The student disciplinary process
In Georgia, schools can suspend or expel students for disruptive or dangerous behavior. Students, their parents or their guardians can appeal a suspension to the school district. If the suspension is upheld, the student can appeal the decision to the Georgia Department of Education.
Here are the percentages of African-American students suspended from school in metro Atlanta’s largest school districts. The list shows the districts’ percentage of black students, then the percentage of students suspended who are black
Atlanta: 80, 96
Clayton: 71, 86
Cobb: 31, 59
DeKalb: 69, 89.5
Fulton: 42, 80.5
Gwinnett: 30, 50
Source: Georgia Department of Education