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Zero tolerance?
Critics claim African-American male students are disciplined unfairly
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One of the most important yet contentious aspects of education is discipline. You’ve got to have it, or chaos reigns in the classrooms and nobody learns. Yet when it’s enacted, critics rise up to protest that it’s meted out unfairly, inconsistently or too harshly.

In Savannah, the discussion crosses both racial and gender lines. Students are more likely to be punished, and more harshly punsihed, if they’re African American and male. Or are they?

The Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools Board of Education has been asked to find out. Members say it is a issue that needs to be addressed, but there are many variables that also must be examined before reaching a conclusion.

Members of the African-American Male Achievement Group, made up entirely of volunteers, went before the school board during its informal session April 1 to address the issue. The group has been conducting a study of its own over the past two years, using district data, and says that data supports the contention that African-American male students are treated unfairly.

"The AMA was established in 2006 to raise awareness," spokesman Rich Fergerson said. "Our mission is to examine and present issues to the public to support African-American male achievement and success."

Members of the group said in-school and out-of-school suspensions of black male students begin as early as pre-kindergarten, and questioned what a child could do at that age to warrant a suspension. Suspensions spike in sixth and ninth grades, when students are transitioning into middle school and high school, a time of added stress.

The group claims that black males account for 85 percent of suspensions, not for safety reasons such as weapons or drugs violations, but rather for lower-level infractions such as chronic tardiness and dress-code violations. In out-of-school suspensions, students are out on the streets during the day, and can end up in trouble with the law if the issues that are troubling them are not addressed when they first occur, the group said.

Fergerson said the AMA agrees that zero tolerance should be used when criminal activity is involved. "The problem comes when you merge punishment and discipline," he said.

The AMA recommended that first the board communicate with disruptive students, then dig deeper to find causes for infactions, and institute interventions when students first get into trouble. When board members responded that parents need to take more responsibility, the group reiterated that it wants to know what the board plans to do when those students are in school.

Board member Susan Cox said the group’s findings are "old news" and that the board already knew what the data shows. "What I have found is there’s a real lacking of parents taking advantage of the resources," she said. "It’s going to take the community as a whole (to address the problem). This is just data. My plea is to the community to help us."

Suspensions come at a cost, Cox said. "The children lose, the community loses, the district loses," she said, adding that parenting classes might help some parents guide their children to do better in school.

Board member Floyd Adams said one of the first things he did when he was elected to the school board was to use data to ask questions about zero tolerance. "I found out that the district doesn’t have a zero tolerance policy, but everyone practices zero tolerance," he said. "We need to take these recommendations and study them."

Board member Irene Hines agreed with Adams. "These are facts we need to know if we are to be the school system we want to be," she said. "I’m grieved when I hear a child has been suspended from kindergarten. If we don’t turn these children around now, they’re going to be the taxpayer’s responsibility later."

A few board members asked if the data showed how many students with disciplinary problems come from single-parent homes. Some audience members vehemently shook their heads when board member Darrell Sapp said one school superintendent in another state learned that nine out of 10 students with disciplinary problems came from single-parent homes.

Board member Julie Gerbsch said collecting data is one thing, analyzing it is another matter entirely. She said her own son received an in-school suspension for wearing flip-flops to class.

"I asked him what they did and he said it was a study hall," Gerbsch said. "What are we doing across the system with in-school suspensions? That’s where you can nip problems in the bud."

The number of students being suspended on the elementary level is troubling, Gerbsch said. "There doesn’t seem to be a standard approach to that," she said. "The issue isn’t weapons, it’s not drugs, it’s really not been about fighting. They were all due to other things where kids were put out on the streets."

Board President Joe Buck thanked the AMA for its efforts. "Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day stuff, when the most important thing is those (children’s) lives," he said.

Superintendent Thomas Lockamy recommended looking at the data to determine how many offenses are done by repeat offenders to more accurately determine just how many students are involved. He said discipline is something that should begin even before a child enters Pre-K.

"You’ve got to work with children early to help them," Lockamy said. "School is a culture that has to be learned. It’s not a one-way street."

Mayor Otis Johnson attended the meeting for the AMA discussion. "I have a real concern about this issue," he said as he left the meeting. "When those children are not in school, they’re my problem."

Discipline again came before the board at its formal session when Dr. Quentina Miller-Fields, the district’s senior director of pupil personnel, presented first semester discipline data.

Nearly half of all suspensions and expulsions last semester were for rude and disrespectful behavior, including inappropriate language or gestures. Chronic tardiness was next at 17 percent, followed by classroom disruptiveness at 13 percent.

Ten percent of the suspensions and expulsions were for fighting, with 6.2 percent for skipping class. Dress code violations account for 4 percent, while drugs and weapons come in at just 1 percent.

More than half of all out-of-school suspensions are on the high school level, followed by the middle school level at 25 percent. Elementary students account for 5.3 percent, and students in alternative schools 15.1 percent.

Total student enrollment is 36,282, of which 23,334 students are black. While black students represent 64.3 percent of total enrollment, 87.2 percent of the suspensions and expulsions are meted out to them.

Each long-term suspension and expulsion is reviewed, and school social workers and counselors are involved in interventions, Miller-Fields said. Individual and group counseling is offered in the district, and troubled students and their families are provided with information about community resources that might help. "The door to our office is always open," she said.

At the Scott Alternative Learning Center, alternatives to suspensions include individual counseling, verbal warnings, parent contact and face-to-face parent meetings. "One suspension is too many," Hines said. "Educate these kids now or pay for their incarceration later. We must get parents involved at every level."

Cox said she wished the public could sit in on student appeal cases. "That’s the toughest part of our job," she said. "These aren’t widgets, they’re children. While we’re responsible to deal with children, we certainly expect to have parental involvement."

Parents who refuse to accept services for their children are guilty of neglect and should be reported to the Department of Family and Children Services, Cox said. She recommended that the number of repeat offenders be determined so the board can more accurately see how many students are suspended.

Gerbsch said the district began using zero tolerance two years ago when bomb threats were a problem. "I don’t mind expelling students who fight or are violent, and also have no problem expelling students who bring weapons or drugs," she said.

"Those areas represent the smaller percent of suspensions," Gerbsch said. "We have a 26-page booklet that is our code of conduct. It has to be looked at with common sense. It was never my intent to put kids on the street for dress code violations."

There also are racial gaps when it comes to academics. Danielle Pinkerton, senior director of curriculum and instruction, presented the district’s results from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, given to third, fifth and eighth graders. "There’s not much of a ethnic gap until later," she said.

Levels are equal at the third grade level, but by fifth grade, African-American students lag significantly behind all other students in reading, language, math, social studies and science -- on the ITBS, anyway. "This information is disturbing," Cox said.

"The figures for black students in the fifth and eighth grades are disappointing, to say the least," she said. "With the Risers’ Academy, the Core Knowledge curriculum, hopefully we will bring those students up.

"We’re going to have to look long and hard at what’s causing the decline in scores," Cox said. "It’s frustrating to me as a former parent in the district and as a board member. I think it’s going to take some real effective strategies. The problem is that it isn’t cool to be smart or do well."

Pinkerton said she and her team will spend the summer analyzing the results. "We’ll look at each attendance center to determine its needs, not just look at big broad fixes," she said.

The budget remains a top priority with the board, but so far, no teacher layoffs are expected. School officials are reducing class size and taking other measures to save money.

"That doesn’t mean teachers will lose their positions," Lockamy said, adding that attrition will mean employees will be moved around, not laid off. "Some are retiring, some are leaving the area, so we are losing a number of positions," he said. "Normally, we would have 300 new hires. This year, we might only have 100 new hires."

The 2010 budget is expected to come up for a vote on June 24, and the board will meet April 22 for a budget workshop. Lockamy said there probably will be more than one workshop before the vote is taken. "We need your input more than one time," he told the board.

An internal audit of the district’s first ESPLOST project at Woodville Thomkins Technical High School discovered some discrepancies, which have been resolved. There also was a conflict of interest, when a district custodian worked as a sub contractor on the project, auditor Kelly Crosby told the board.

When the contractor, Ra-Lin & Associates of Carrollton, applied for payment, internal auditors questioned some of the bills. Some specifications outlined in the contract weren’t followed, said Otis Brock, operations chief for the district.

"This was a small project, on the grand scheme of things," Brock said. "It gave us the opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again on larger projects. We had a learning curve, but this learning curve is gone.

"We don’t want to go back down that road," he said. "Having an internal audit really does assist us."