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'Putting my bleeding heart away'
Mayor addresses suspensions, dropouts
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Mayor Otis Johnson wants the public to know what happens when students are suspended from school.

"When they’re not in school, they become my problem as men," Johnson says. "They’re out there as the old folks say, doing devilment. If we keep on doing what we are doing, we will keep getting what we have. It’s time for a change."

Johnson brought the subject of out-of-school suspensions and how they might unfairly target African-American male students to his quarterly Town Hall meeting, held April 29. Members of the African-American Male Achievement Group, an all-volunteer organization that has been focusing on student suspensions, were asked to present their findings from three years of research.

Group members had already presented those findings to the Savannah-Chatham school board on April 1 and Johnson was present that day. "I thought the information they gathered was extremely powerful and should be given wider exposure because of its importance," he told the audience.

The group’s Town Hall presentation was much the same as that given to the school board, but this time the audience was different -- and so was the response. AMA spokesman Rich Fergerson said the group chose to study the rate of suspensions because it would give an indication of the extent of problems with the community’s youth.

"We’re dedicated to what we’re doing," Fergerson said. "We want to raise awareness of conditions that are adversely affecting African-American male achievement in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System so that the school board’s policies and practices will more effectively support African-American achievement and success."

Safety is a big concern for the group, Fergerson said. "You must have discipline in order to operate," he said.

But after analyzing district data over three years, Fergerson said zero tolerance is obviously a problem.

Iris McGraw, also an AMA member, said the group looked at data from all grade levels throughout the district, and what they found was startling. "Suspensions began as early as Pre-K," McGraw said.

"Then we began to notice spikes were occurring," she said. "It begins to rise and spikes at the 5th-6th grade level, a major transition period."

At the 8th-9th grade level, another transitional period -- a "huge" spike -- occurs, McGraw says. Then there is "a great big drop."

The group began wondering what was happening to cause the spikes and why black males received more suspensions than other minority students or whites. "Even though black males make up 65 percent of the population, they represent 85 percent of out-of-school suspensions," McGraw said.

"When we began to look at individual schools, we saw instances where black males only made up 30 percent of the school population, but still represent 85 percent of out-of-school suspensions."

About a quarter of all male students are suspended from school at one point or another. "We want discipline in our schools, we believe it is important," McGraw said. "Most of us have the idea suspensions are for discipline and safety. But when you begin to look at the incidence reports, the number one and two reasons for out-of-school suspension of males were tardiness and dress code violations, not violence or anything related to school safety."

Group member Gwen Jordan said when students are out of school, they aren’t learning. "They tend to turn away from education in general, because education is not a high priority to them," she said.

"Their human and economic resources are lost to this community. Taxpayer dollars are wasted.

"Suspensions are not being used to promote the educational goals of the community," Jordan said. "Patterns of negative behaviors are set into motion."

When a student drops out of school, it isn’t an event, but it’s usually the end of a process, Jordan said. "It can begin as early as pre-kindergarten when students see they can be pushed out of school and leave school," she said.

Jordan said the AMA believes the school board should communicate better with parents, students and the community. After reviewing the district’s code of conduct, the group thinks it should be made user-friendly so parents can understand what the disciplinary standards are.

"There is a great difference between discipline and punishment," Jordan said. "We want to be sure we are looking at discipline and not punishment."

The mayor said he agrees with the group, citing what he calls the "cradle-to-prison pipeline."

"When these young people are not in school and when they start down that negative road at Pre-K, they’re in that pipeline," Johnson said.

The mayor said he visited the Chatham County Jail webs site. "In three days, the police arrested 148 people as of 3:30 p.m. today," he said.

"Seventy-one were black males, including one who had been arrested twice, 40 were white males, five were Hispanic and one was Native American," Johnson said. "Twenty were black females, 10 were white females and one female was Hispanic.

"I’m willing to bet no less than 85 percent of them were high school dropouts who have failed to become productive citizens and who are in that pipeline," he said. "I went to the web site of the Georgia Department Corrections. There are 55,440 people in our state prisons. Of them, 68 percent are black, but blacks only make up 28 percent of the state population. There is a huge disparity in the numbers."

Some prison inmates are as young as 16 and 17. At a time when they should be in school, they’re already deep in the cradle-to-prison pipeline, Johnson said.

"I’m putting my bleeding heart away," he said. "We’re talking hard economics now."

The average cost of housing an inmate is $16,888 per year, Johnson said. Funding a college education at a state school costs less, he said.

Education plus work plus assets lead to the path of opportunity. Johnson said. "If we do not educate these young people, they cannot get a good paying job," he said. "If they can’t get a job, they’re going to be tempted to rob you, break into your house, to rob your car, because they can’t get a job."

Johnson recommended "building a collaboration of the collaborations" -- meaning area agencies must form partnerships to ensure students get a quality education. "One of the things elementary school teachers say in their defense is if children came to school prepared, they wouldn’t have all these problems," he said. "Let’s take that reason away."

Equity outweighs equality, Johnson said. "When they get to school, it is school board’s responsibility to see they experience success at high levels," he said. "That means the principle of equality must be there, but even greater must be the principle of equity.

"All kids don’t need the same things to succeed at high levels," Johnson said. "Some take more, some take less. We have to make sure make our commitment is to all."

Society shouldn’t be so quick to criticize families, especially single-parent families, Johnson said. "There’s nothing virtuous about being poor," he said.

"The opportunities and structures for moving individuals and families out of poverty are absent or weak in low-wealth neighborhoods in Savannah," Johnson said. "(That includes) good education, living-wage jobs, financial institutions, high quality child care, affordable housing and health care, quality social services and a network of mutual support."

Neither liberals nor conservatives have it completely right, Johnson said. "The truth is in the middle," he said. "You’ve got to help yourself, and then you need some help. When you get movement on both sides, you get progress."

Johnson urged directors of the Youth Futures Authority and Step Up Savannah programs to "get together and provide a continuum of care." But even that might not be enough, he said.

"Even if the community got educated, racism would prohibit them from moving out of poverty," Johnson said. "Here I am, 23 years later, having not dismissed that hypothesis. I want my hypothesis to be wrong. It’s up to this community, black, white, yellow, green and polka dot, to do something."

When the session was opened to public comments, former state senator Regina Thomas said anyone who makes hard and tough decisions is going to be criticized, no matter what. "Single-parent families are not necessarily the problem," she said. "I came from a single-parent home. We need to establish high esteem in all of our children."

"A lot of this hits home for me," said Crystal Pelton, 25. "I have a five-year-old son. I bust my butt every day for my son.

"I got out of the projects and got a job," Pelton said. "It may not pay much, but it pays my bills. I go above and beyond to make sure my son has everything he needs. I don’t want him to be like those statistics."