20-to-1: Black Male Suspensions in Durham Public Schools
The dialogue surrounding the “school-to-prison pipeline” frequently focuses on national trends, lacking adequate discussion of the state and local-level policy decisions which tremendously perpetuate the criminalization of young Black men. In North Carolina, the mechanism which pushes young Black men out of K-12 schools most forcefully is the short-term suspension. Across the state, Black male students are suspended at an average rate four times higher than their white male counterparts. Some counties show more extreme disparities, and Durham Public Schools have a Black/White suspension ratio of 20:1.
The public school system in the North Carolina is suspending Black male students at disproportionately high rates, generating persistent achievement gaps, ethical concerns, and potential residual damages to the state economy. The demographic makeup of K-12 schools in North Carolina includes 60.4% White and 25.8% Black students. Yet, statewide, Black males were issued 124,358 short-term suspensions in 2016, while their White peers only accounted for 54,847 of these sanctions. Proportionally speaking, this means that Black males were given short-term suspensions nearly four times as often as their White male peers. In the same year, 233/100,000 Black young men received long-term suspensions in North Carolina compared to 50/100,000 White males. This is not a recent phenomenon in North Carolina; in fact, these disparate suspension trends have persisted for at least the past five years.
Durham Public Schools (DPS) have one of the largest observable disparities in North Carolina. In 2015, the district-wide demographics for DPS were approximately 46% Black and 18.5% White, so one would expect to see a higher but nonetheless proportional rate of Black student suspensions. However, in 2016, there were 106 White male short-term suspensions, compared to 2,116 for Black males across DPS K-12. Black males are also over-represented in DPS in-school suspensions. In 2016, 11.14% of all Black males in the system received in-school suspensions, while only 2.99% of their White male counterparts did.
According to the North Carolina General Assembly’s Article 27 on school discipline, the principal of a school has the authority to administer suspensions. Students typically have a right to meet with their principal and receive due process before being suspended, but the language of the NCGA’s policy leaves some room for discernment. It reads, “The principal may impose a short-term suspension without providing…an opportunity for a hearing if the presence of the student…substantially disrupts or interferes with the education of other students or the maintenance of discipline." Essentially, if the principal deems that the student is being disruptive, they can deny the student due process at their discretion. Teachers have full agency to refer students to the principal for disciplinary consideration but cannot suspend students themselves.
In DPS, there five levels of disciplinary offenses, and offenses that warrant a suspension of up to five days “with aggravating factors” begin at level I-B. These offenses include "cheating, falsification, inappropriate language, and non-compliance with directions”. Level II offenses are met with short-term suspension and possible long-term suspension “with aggravating factors”. Students can be suspended for level II offenses such as a “threat, false threat or serious disruptive behavior, examples of which include throwing objects or engaging in horseplay”. The “aggravating factors” verbiage allows for flexibility in enforcement and consequences. The pitfalls of the vague language in offenses that warrant suspension are exacerbated by the low proportion of culturally-representative teachers in North Carolina – 80% of whom are white.
The results of a meta-analysis conducted on 53 cases revealed a significant inverse relationship between suspensions and academic achievement, along with a significant positive relationship between suspensions and dropout rate. This finding is reflected in the relationship between suspensions and graduation rates and academic success in Durham schools. High school students who achieved “proficiency” in core subjects in 2016, listed as a percentage of Black/White respectively, were 29.3/80.7 in Math I, 33.7/73.3 in English II, and 34.5/82.8 in Biology. Furthermore, only 75.7% of Black males graduated in four years compared to 88.4% of White males. When considering these two statistics together, however, what one might not realize is that although the graduation rate for Black males is seemingly high, the low levels of academic proficiency suggest that DPS are graduating Black males who are not ready. This combination is setting them up for academic and economic failure.
The consequences of suspensions, and the resultant achievement gaps, are not limited to Black male students. The stakeholders in this issue include all of their peers, school faculty, the North Carolina Board of Education, and North Carolina citizens more broadly. High rates of suspension have been shown to negatively affect the academic success of all students – even the ones who are not suspended – by imposing higher levels of student anxiety and socially fragmenting communities. Furthermore, even when poverty and Black student enrollment were controlled for in a meta-analysis, a school's suspension rate remained a significant predictor of its passage rate on a state achievement test in both elementary and secondary schools. Therefore, parents have cause for concern for the state of the public education system even if their child is not Black. As a result of the academic underachievement that over-suspension creates for Black males, there are potential negative externalities which could affect all state taxpayers such as increased unemployment, crime, and welfare dependence.
Education is a public good, and as such it should be non-excludable. However, young Black men are being systematically excluded in the form of suspensions, creating a critical market failure. Furthermore, the government has some degree of responsibility in fixing this failure due to precedent and equity concerns about racial discrimination. In Hoke County v. State, the NC Supreme Court held that "equal opportunity to receive a sound basic education" is the constitutional right of all North Carolinians. Failure to uphold this ruling is a failure of the government’s responsibility and commitment to adequately educate all students, which raises a racial equity concern when this promise is being systematically denied to Black young men.
One of the most promising solutions to this trend is that of restorative justice. Restorative justice originated in the context of the criminal justice system, but it is more recently being implemented as a behavior-correcting strategy in K-12 schools. In the criminal justice context, restorative justice is the process by which people convicted of crimes are held accountable by facing the people who have been harmed by their actions. In schools, restorative justice is used in the same manner – instead of punishing students by suspending them, administrators have students hold themselves accountable and repair any broken relationships that resulted from their misbehavior. The primary focus of restorative justice programs is to preserve and protect the value of creating a school community.
In Durham Public Schools, this could take the form of assembling care teams from existing faculty and external professional support in order to create mobile response units. These teams would do well to be modeled after the one present at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Washington, D.C. Ron Brown is an all-Black male school with a no-suspension policy, meaning they only suspend students who are an immediate threat to the safety of themselves or others – this standard of using suspension as a last-resort could be adopted by DPS as well. Ron Brown’s “C.A.R.E. Team” is comprised of the school social worker, school counselors, school psychologist, director of empowerment and culture, administrator, and administrator’s assistant as designated by the principal. In the event of a historically suspension-worthy behavioral outburst, the student involved is referred to the C.A.R.E. team for support rather than the threat of suspension. Support comes in the form of psychological care for students, restorative conversations with whomever they harmed as a result of their behavior, and other practices, with the ultimate goal of preparing students to re-enter into the community and continue learning.
Since implementing restorative justice programs, Chicago public schools saw out-of-school suspension rates drop from 23% in 2009 to 16% in 2014. In Los Angeles, restorative justice programs have led to a 92% decrease in the number of days lost to suspensions. At Ebbets Field Middle School in Brooklyn, suspensions have dropped by more than 30% from the previous year. In Wake County, NC, data show that students who attended a restorative justice meeting were three times less likely to have future conflicts than those who did not have such meetings. The capacity for restorative justice to mitigate repeated offenses by students is perhaps its most attractive quality. In order to build an infrastructure of restorative justice support in Durham County which could be similarly effective, one has to consider that there were 3,886 short-term suspensions in 2016. When divided by the 185 days of instruction, care teams assembled in this county would have had to respond to approximately 21 suspension-worthy offenses each day. This would require a larger team than other school systems, but the end result would have a profound effect on the behavior and experience of Durham Public Schools’ students.
Restorative justice care team pilot programs are cheaper, involve lower teacher opportunity costs, and are projected to result in a lower number of suspensions than other alternatives like teacher training. This intervention would lessen the burdensome responsibility for teachers to be instructors and disciplinarians simultaneously, while also ensuring a more equitable experience for Black male students in DPS. Piloting care teams would provide a unique opportunity to study the effectiveness of restorative justice as a solution to racialized suspension rates, as there has been very little formal research done on its effectiveness in schools. Moreover, the pilot project would effectively hold North Carolina legislators accountable to their legal and ethical obligation to provide a quality education for all of its students. Ultimately, though, the goal of this policy intervention would be to improve the experiences of young Black men in Durham Public Schools in an effort to secure a more equitable academic environment in which they are no longer disproportionately disciplined, criminalized, and suspended.