In Georgia, as in U.S., race affects school discipline

Georgia’s black students are suspended and expelled in disproportionate numbers compared to whites, reflecting a national trend civil rights advocates argue is crippling minority students’ chances of career success and marring them with criminal records.

Black students made up 37 percent of the nearly 1.7 million students enrolled in Georgia for the 2012-13 school year, but accounted for 57 percent of students expelled and 67 percent of students given out-of-school suspensions, according to state Department of Education data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

White students, by contrast, made up 43 percent of students enrolled, 31 percent of students expelled and 21 percent of students suspended.

Per capita, black students were expelled at a rate more than double that of white students and nearly four times as many were suspended. In the Atlanta metropolitan area, the contrast is even more stark.

“In communities across Georgia, black kids are suspended (and expelled) more,” said Marlyn Tillman, a co-founder of Gwinnett STOPP, a metro Atlanta group that advocates for student civil rights. “And it’s for the same kind of behavior (as white students).”

The persistent problem among U.S. schools was highlighted in a set of recently released guidelines by the U.S. Department of Education calling for education officials to drop overly harsh disciplinary policies and incorporate fairness and equity in doling out discipline.

So-called “zero-tolerance” policies that call on police and criminal authorities to deal with student disciplinary issues are often to blame, according to federal officials. Routine and minor disciplinary infractions should be handled by school officials, not the police, federal officials say.

Disparities in student discipline rates may be caused by a range of factors, federal officials say. But research suggests the racial disparities “are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color,” the Justice and Education departments said in a letter this month to school districts.

Race even outpaces poverty as a factor influencing school disciplinary rates. In Georgia, more black students per capita were expelled and suspended in 2012-13 than students eligible for free or reduced lunches, a commonly used gauge of student poverty, according to state DOE data.

“In our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students,” the federal Justice and Education letter states. “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

In Georgia, education officials are pushing to improve “school climate” in order to reduce overall suspensions and expulsions. Climate refers to factors that contribute to whether students have positive feelings about their school, such as relationships between students, teachers and staff; teaching and learning practices; the physical appearance of the school; and the ratio of students to teachers in classrooms.

“If you have a negative school climate, you’re going to have more discipline problems. If you have more discipline problems, you’re going to have more suspensions,” said Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent of policy for the state DOE.

The education department recommends a strategy called “positive behavioral interventions and supports” to address the problem. About 350 schools in Georgia are using the strategy, though state education officials want at least half of Georgia’s schools — more than 1,000 — to adopt the system in the next five years.

The Gwinnett County school district, the largest in the state, has about 35 schools using the strategy and has seen some improvement, McGiboney said.

Gwinnett suspended just over three times as many black students per capita as white students last year, the lowest figure in the metro area. Metro Atlanta’s five major school districts suspended nearly five and a half as many black students per capita as white students, and expelled nearly six and a half times as many.

Tillman helped form Gwinnett STOPP after her 10th-grade son, who was an honor student, was suspended from Brookwood High School for wearing what education officials deemed “gang attire.” She sued the Gwinnett school district in 2004, with the case settled nearly two years later.

Tillman said the group has received hundreds of reports across Georgia of black students disciplined more frequently and harshly than their white counterparts for similar offenses — mirroring what federal data has shown. Tillman and other civil rights advocates say this contributes to a school-to-prison pipeline that discriminates against minority students.

Tillman believes discipline was too excessive in the recent, national headlines-grabbing case of a Gwinnett high school student who was suspended for a year for hugging a teacher.

“This would have been a great teachable moment to get him hooked up with an organization that focuses on people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, sexual harassment,” Tillman said.

“Discipline means to teach,” she said. “Students don’t learn from you just suspending them.”

Kimberly Jones said her son was suspended from attending Peachtree Ridge High School in Gwinnett for nearly six months after buying two stolen cellphones from another student.

Jones’ son said he did not know the phones were stolen. He was apprehended in an off-campus sting operation set up by the school’s truancy officer and charged with theft by receiving, Jones said.

Jones, whose son returned to school in January, said his chances of earning an athletic scholarship and attending college have been greatly diminished. She thinks the suspension was too harsh a punishment and the issue should have been resolved within the school.

“He’s got all this on his record now,” said Jones, whose son is 18.

Gwinnett school officials declined to comment on the case involving Jones’ son, citing federal privacy laws.

For their part, officials with metro Atlanta school districts say they have policies that reflect many of the federal recommendations for dealing with racial disparities in discipline, such as encouraging personnel to be trained in classroom management and conflict resolution.

“We have already put a lot of things in place relative to ensuring fairness and equity in discipline practices,” said Quentin Fretwell, safe schools coordinator for the DeKalb County school system.

Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles, said even “the most liberal, civil-rights-endorsing teachers might be perceiving behavior differently” between black and white students.

New federal guidelines put “all the districts in the country on notice … to really review what they’re doing very carefully and look at the data by race,” Losen said.

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