State data: Black students suspended from NC public schools at four times the rate of whites
Black and American Indian students are suspended and expelled from schools at dramatically higher rates than their white peers, according to recent state data.
During the 2021-22 school year, these groups had the highest rates of short-term suspensions, according to data compiled in the NC Department of Public Instruction’s Consolidated Data Report 2021-22. It consists of the annual reports on school crime and violence, suspensions and expulsions, alternative learning placements, reassignments for disciplinary purposes, uses of corporal punishment and dropout rates.
- Although Black students comprise only a quarter of students in traditional K-12 public schools, they had the highest rate of short-term suspensions, with 304 per 1,000 students enrolled, roughly four times the rate of white students. Short-term suspensions are defined as those lasting fewer than five days.
- For American Indian students, the rate of short-term suspensions was 243 per 1,000 students enrolled.
- Students who identified as two or more races with 179 suspensions per 1,000 students enrolled.
- White students, who made up about 45% of enrollments in traditional K-12 public schools, had just 82 suspensions for every 1,000 students enrolled.
Most of the 217,928 short-term suspensions were for behavior deemed “unacceptable.” These include “defiant behaviors, assaults and threats.” Black students and American Indian students had the highest rates of unacceptable behavior resulting in short-term suspensions.
The number of short-terms suspension shocked state board members at a meeting this month. In comparison, relatively few suspensions were handed down when many schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. In the previous two academic years, there were just 172,355 short-term suspensions.
“To see the overall numbers spike in the way that they did, I just think that was shocking and undeniable, but even more so it made the long-standing inequities between Black students, Native [American] students, mixed race students and their counterparts just that much more obvious and outrageous,” State Board of Education (SBE) member James Ford told Policy Watch.
For students of color, the suspension data indicates that the “house is on fire,” SBE member Reginald Kenan told colleagues during the board’s March meeting.
Harsher penalties are exacted for more serious “reportable offenses” such as sexual assault or assaults involving weapons that must be reported to district administrators or law enforcement agencies.
For long-term suspensions, those lasting more than 10 days, Black students received more than half — 385 or 55% — of the 693. White students received the second-highest number of long-term suspensions, 176, or 25% of the total.
There were 48 students expelled for a full calendar year in 2021-22; 64.6% or 31 of them were Black students.
Debating the source of the problem
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson weighed in at the SBE meeting, offering that the state must undertake “deep conversations” about what’s causing students of color to receive a disproportionate share of suspensions. “They’re going to be very unpleasant, and some very unpleasant truths are going to have to be exposed,” the state’s first Black lieutenant governor said.
To have those “deep conversations,” Robinson added, state leaders must behave as “mature adults” and “sit in the room with each other.”
“There’s going to be no easy fixes, and there’s going to be some feelings that are going to get hurt and there’s going to be some people who are going to be very angry about some of the things that some folks say,” Robinson said.
The lieutenant governor didn’t share the unpleasant truths he expects to surface during conversations about school discipline, but his views on the subject are well known. “Bad actors should be removed from the classroom and given to the proper authorities whoever that authority might be, whether that be a law enforcement official or a social worker,” Robinson told a House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future in February 2022.
Ford said it’s clear from Robinson’s comments during the House Select Committee meeting that he supports increased punishments for students and an increased police presence in schools.
What was unclear, Ford said, was whether Robinson’s comments were directed at Black children and their families. “If so, I think he needs to state that boldly,” Ford said.
Aimee Durant, senior counsel for justice system reform at the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said that it’s important to note that the disproportionate discipline rates in North Carolina are not due to disproportionate rates of misbehavior between children of color and white children. To approach school discipline from the perspective that Black children misbehave more than other children and that their parents are neglecting their responsibilities would miss the point, Durant said.
“The conversation that needs to happen in North Carolina should be solely focused on what is happening within the schools and why children of color are being disciplined at greater rates than their white classmates for the same behaviors,” Durant said. “The majority of school discipline and school-based complaints stem from minor infractions that should be considered normal adolescent behavior and dealt with inside the school rather than subjecting these kids to punishments which will have long-term effects on them.”
North Carolina must provide students with sufficient mental health resources to see declines in discipline rates and increases in school safety and graduation rates.
“Instead of investing in more officers in schools — which makes children of color feel less comfortable and more distracted in their learning environment — North Carolina should be investing in additional counselors, psychologists, and safe spaces to help students cope and to redirect them from disruptive behaviors,” Durant said.
State Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, who chairs the House Select Committee at which Robinson spoke last year, recently said that lax school disciplinary policies over the past 20 years have led to much of the bad behavior in schools.
Students have been allowed to misbehave in schools without appropriate consequences, Torbett said. “If you were going to high school, and now unfortunately middle schools and even younger grades of elementary school, you’d hear foul language the likes of which you wouldn’t have heard when we were in school,” Torbett said. “The foul language is part of a disciplinary issue. We have been lax with that for what I can account for is about 20 years, if not more.”
“We have stood back and done nothing about it other than lighten the load, lighten the discipline,” he said.
The 20-year period that Torbett referenced came as school districts across the country moved away from 1990s-era “zero-tolerance” policies and limited the use of suspensions for minor infractions. Both measures led to an increase in suspensions and exacerbated racial disparities in discipline — despite proponents’ belief that they reduced school violence and led to unbiased discipline by removing discretion from school staff.
Durant said that overworked teachers and school administrators find that it’s easier to suspend students than to address behavioral issues.
“For students of color, racial bias and stereotyping leads to harsher punishments compared to their white classmates for the same behaviors,” Durant said. “Studies have shown that adults often perceive Black children as older, more dangerous, and less responsive to rehabilitation than their white counterparts, which leads to harsher punishments.”
The fact that most teachers and school administrators are white fuels implicit bias and leads to greater punishments for students of color, Durant said.
“Students should not be removed from the school altogether for normal adolescent behavior, no matter how annoying teachers might find that behavior to be,” she said. “There are alternative methods of discipline that do not have the same harmful long-term effects as suspension, and classroom misbehavior should be handled within the classroom.”
Recommendations for improvement
Karen Fairley, executive director of the Center for Safer Schools, told the state board in March that ongoing efforts to improve school climate and culture are key to reducing instances of crime and violence as well as resulting disciplinary actions that can fall disproportionately on minority students.
Fairley’s recommendations to improve school climate and culture include:
- Recognizing cultural differences in students served,
- Providing support for parents and guardians to increase protective factors such as ensuring social connections and strengthening knowledge of parenting and child development,
- Employing a social worker at each school (elementary, middle and high) to focus on prevention, intervention and referral,
- Employing qualified professionals to offer cultural awareness training to school staff and employees,
- Offering trauma-informed care training to school staff and employees, and
- Ensuring that school resource officers are engaged in positive interactions with students, not just classroom behavior management and situations of arrest or other punitive measures.
Ronda Taylor Bullock, co-founder and executive director of We Are, a nonprofit working to promote anti-racist education, noted that Fairley’s recommendations point to adjustment within schools and school systems. “Historically, there has been a tendency to blame the discipline disparities on Black and brown students, their families, and their cultures,” Bullock said. “In reality, the disparities are based in systemic issues, such as policies, practices, and biases among those doling out punishment.”