Every morning, April Taylor worries when her son leaves home for school.
She’s concerned about the everyday perils of being a 15-year-old boy, as well as the infrastructure of a school system she believes is designed to fail him.
April Taylor had her son Marshaun, 15, recently transferred to Rogers High School for a fresh start.
She said her son, Marshaun Taylor, was suspended three times this school year from Scott High, including an in-school suspension for shooting a broken piece of his zipper into a garbage can, she said. Marshaun — who in that case mimicked the motion of shooting a basketball — said school officials “keep nitpicking” when it comes to suspensions.
“The crime doesn’t fit the disciplines,” Ms. Taylor said.
Ms. Taylor was one of many black parents who told The Blade they believe their child’s race was a factor in how they’ve been disciplined by administrators at northwest Ohio school districts.
“They’re trying to fit every individual child into one standard box instead of molding to the children and what they need,” said Tycie Alcorn, who has a son that attends Bowsher.
Their concerns come on the heels of a national study released last week by Congress’s Government Accountability Office that highlights how black students are disproportionately suspended compared to their white classmates.
A similar pattern of unequal treatment shows up across Ohio, according to a Blade review of state data for the 2016-17 school year.
Black students in Ohio, as in other states, are suspended at a much higher rate than white students. While black students make up roughly 17 percent of enrollment statewide, they accounted for 48 percent of suspensions in Ohio.
In Toledo Public Schools, black students comprised 43 percent of the student population but accounted for 67 percent of suspensions last year, according to state data.
Superintendent Romules Durant acknowledged that district has “work to do” in addressing the disparity between the suspension rates of black and white students. He said school officials are rolling out a discipline code that focuses more on intervention rather than consequences.
TPS administrators also have implemented an alternative suspension program at the beginning of the school year in 10 elementary schools identified as having the highest suspension rates. They also have partnered with mental health agencies to assist students.
Mr. Durant added urban school districts must overcome a daunting challenge: Students face complex issues at home that affect their behavior in school.
“The need for intervention continues to grow based on social responsibilities, and those are now being turned over to the school system as an educational responsibility,” he said.
In Springfield School District, one of the more diverse school districts in Lucas County, black students accounted for 42 percent of suspensions last year, even though they are only 17 percent of the student body.
“We are concerned about that,” Springfield Superintendent Matt Geha said.
Springfield conducted diversity training for the staff this year, where they learned about implicit bias and reviewed the district’s suspension numbers, he said.
School personnel are trained to decide the “appropriate consequences” for bad behavior based on the discipline policy found in the district’s handbook, he said.
“I’d like to say that when a behavior is observed and reported to the office, it will be addressed the same way with every single child,” Mr. Geha said.
Springfield is working to get the number of students who are out of school down, Mr. Geha said, but officials will never avoid disciplining a specific group of students to get there.
“The overall idea is to have every single kid that walks in here be comfortable, accepted, and get the same education as everybody else,” he said.
Concerns about racial bias affecting black students long have been researched in academic circles.
Experts say research suggests an implicit bias — an unconscious attitude or stereotype that affects understanding, actions, and decisions — that contributes to the disparity in school discipline.
That bias is magnified in urban school districts where predominantly white teachers preside over black students, said Kelly Capatosto, a senior research associate at Ohio State University’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.
“At the end of the day it’s really about usually white teachers giving white students the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
Teachers and administrators are most likely to give second chances to students that reflect their own identity and their own experiences, Mrs. Capatosto said, adding that people are automatically inclined to understand the difficulties someone goes through if they “look like them.”
Though 43 percent of TPS students are black, only 10 percent of the the district’s teachers are African-Amerian. Eighty-six percent are white.
A cultural disconnect can often lead to white teachers punishing black students based on a subjective standard of disrespect, said Derrick Darby, University of Michigan professor of philosophy and co-author of The Color of Mind: Why the Origins of the Achievement Gap Matter for Justice.
“Teachers using discretion is where the bias can operate,” Mr. Darby said. “We can say this young black kid is being disrespectful because they didn’t respond to the teacher’s order fast enough, or because they looked at the teacher a certain way, or because they walked into the room with a baseball cap on. Whereas, those same subjective infractions don’t really get used in that way for students who are not racial minorities.”
The overwhelming majority of students in Northwest Ohio are suspended for “disobedient/disruptive behavior.”
Mrs. Capatosto disputes the notion that the racial-discipline gap is because black students simply misbehave much more than white students.
“I think that’s been one of the most pervasive and harmful myths about school discipline,” she said. “We can see through data it’s not the behaviors themselves but how teachers perceive these behaviors.”
According to the GAO analysis of national data for the 2013-14 school year, black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students but represented roughly 39 percent of students suspended from school.
The report also concluded that the types of offenses for which black children were disciplined were based mainly on school officials’ interpretations of behavior.
The agency also found that discipline discrepancies for black students persisted regardless of the type of discipline, level of school poverty, or type of public school students attended.
Black students were the only race that was disproportionately disciplined in the six disciplinary actions analyzed, including school-related arrests, corporal punishment, and expulsions.
Mr. Darby said the explanation that black students misbehave more than white students is “fraudulent.”
“If you’re saying the kids are inherently bad then you’re sort of proving the point that you’re operating with these longstanding racist assumptions,” he said.
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