Black and Hispanic students are three times as likely to be suspended as their peers, according to data Montgomery County Public Schools released this week.
During a school board committee meeting on Tuesday, MCPS officials reviewed suspension data that they said was disaggregated by student demographic and socioeconomic status for the first time.
The data showed that roughly 80% of all suspensions over the past three school years were of black and Hispanic students, and that those student groups were about three times as likely as their peers who are white, Asian or other ethnicities to be suspended.
The majority of the suspensions were of special education students, according to the data.
“We realize we have some work to do,” said Kevin Lowndes, director of the MCPS Office of Special Education.
The problem has persisted for decades, school board member Judy Docca said, and it’s not unique to MCPS.
Nearly 40% of all black students in the country, as well as about 16% of Hispanic students, reported to have ever been suspended or expelled, according to data the National Center for Education Statistics compiled in 2012, the most recent year available. About 19% of all white students reported being suspended or expelled.
The rates were higher for males than females in all categories.
In MCPS, the majority of suspensions occur at the middle and high school level, with about 300 suspensions each of the past three years in elementary schools.
Suspensions numbers for the previous three school years were:
• for 2018-19: 3,511 total, including 2,822 for black and Hispanic students
• for 2017-18: 3,340 total, including 2,713 for black and Hispanic students
• for 2016-17: 3,516 total, including 2,779 for black and Hispanic students
Docca, a school board member since 2006 and former MCPS principal, said the disproportionate suspension of black and Hispanic students is “troubling.” She hopes, however, that new districtwide initiatives will help curb the problem.
“It’s a real, serious issue, and it’s one I’ve been talking about and concerned about for a long time, probably since the 1970s, so the data wasn’t surprising,” Docca said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “I’m sorry to have seen it again … but the work we’re doing now is so positive.”
At Tuesday’s school board committee meeting, Lowndes explained that MCPS has begun rolling out updated, expanded training for staff members about how to de-escalate tense situations. The district also is implementing more focused restorative justice practices and has convened a “suspension workgroup” that is developing a “targeted plan” to address Hispanic and black students’ suspensions.
Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with people affected by their actions.
As part of the work, MCPS identified nine schools with high suspension rates for black and Hispanic students, especially for students of those demographics with disabilities:
• Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring
• Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Rockville
• Briggs Chaney Middle School in Silver Spring
• Albert Einstein High School near Kensington
• Gaithersburg High School
• Northwood High School in Silver Spring
• Springbrook High School in Silver Spring
• Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring
• Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville
Those schools are receiving additional support from the MCPS central office staff, Lowndes said.
“The goal is to help people rethink how we engage with kids,” Lowndes said. “That includes differences in black culture and mainstream culture … so we’re able to understand students’ actions appropriately.”
Byron Johns, chair of the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP Parents’ Council, said he has seen firsthand black students who were suspended for “trivial stuff” — often the same behaviors their white peers do, but without punishment.
“In Montgomery County, it has frankly just started to be treated seriously,” Johns said of black and Hispanic students’ suspension rates, “Because relative to other districts, we have a relatively low suspension rate overall, but the disparity is just as high as any other place.”
Although it’s a complex problem that will take a “comprehensive” plan to address, Johns said, he suggested that MCPS focuses on training teachers and principals about students’ different cultural backgrounds and on restorative justice.
The key, he said, is to not pull students out of class to discipline them for actions that are not serious. MCPS considers serious offenses to include physical or sexual assault, other forms of violence and arson.
In other instances, MCPS should lean on restorative justice, Johns said, emphasizing that all staff members need to “buy in” to the concept, which doesn’t happen now.
MCPS began incorporating restorative justice in its schools in 2014 and plans to have it implemented in 125 of the district’s 208 schools this academic year.
“By no means do I think all of our kids are angels, but they are still kids,” Johns said. “All of us did things in our school years that, if somebody hadn’t pulled us aside and said, ‘Let’s figure out what’s going on,’ could have been problematic.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org