Black students are four times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension in the Muscogee County School District than all the other races combined, according to district records.
The administration has released a breakdown of its out-of-school suspension data from August through the first Monday of December in each of the past four years. It shows a significant decline in percentage of all students with at least one out-of-school suspension, from 7.5 percent in 2010 to 5.3 percent in 2012, although there was a slight increase to 6.3 percent in 2013
But the percentage of those students with at least one out-of-school suspension who are black has risen sharply -- from 78.3 percent in 2010 to 83.1 percent in 2013 -- and is out of proportion to the district's overall population. The student body was 57.3 percent black in 2010 and 57.8 percent black in 2013.
"We're going to utilize this data to work on our concern," Melvin Blackwell, the district's student services chief, told the school board during its Jan. 25 retreat. "Schools are already in the process of doing that. This information already has been shared with principals, and we've never been this detailed on the information reported."
Blackwell wants principals to share their ideas about combating the disparity in discipline.
"The answers to a lot of the problems are contained in the school," he said.
In response to monitoring from the Georgia Department of Education, the district trained employees this past summer to reduce the out-of-school suspensions of special-education students, Blackwell said. Seventy-nine percent of the district's special-education students are black, he said.
"We want to make sure we don't punish a child because that child has a disability," he said.
Board members Pat Hugley Green of District 1 and Naomi Buckner of District 4 asked Blackwell whether the district conducted similar training to reduce the out-of-school suspensions of black students.
"We initially said our goal is to decrease these total numbers," Blackwell said. "We did not have specific diversity training."
The district should conduct the training, said Abraham Wallace, president of the Columbus branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"More training for our teachers," he said. "More training for our staff. Let's look into it."
Wallace said he hasn't heard many complaints about the racial disparity in the district's out-of-school suspensions, "but this is a concern. I think it's sad. I think it should be addressed."
So does Superintendent David Lewis, whom the school board hired in July from Polk County, Fla.
Lewis said he wants issues to be resolved at the lowest possible level.
He wants the district's behavior code and discipline policy to look like "a decision tree" with a series of "if, then" steps outlined.
"Our policies and procedures have got to reflect what the system wants," he said. "For example, our code of conduct, in my opinion, needs to be restructured and rewritten so it builds in interventions into the practice and policy, not leaving things so wide open that there's such a wide range of principals doing whatever. I want them to have autonomy to an extent, but there has to be -- based on severity -- there has to be a consistency of implementation."
Then again, Blackwell said, "Each school is different. Each school has its own culture."
The district's behavior code and discipline policy allow the principal to administer an out-of-school suspension for as long as 10 days. For a longer suspension or an expulsion, the principal must submit a written recommendation to the superintendent, who will provide a due process hearing.
"There are some students who are ultimately very disruptive and keep students in the school and the classroom from learning," Lewis said. "At that point, it puts us in the position we have to look at the greater good. There's a delicate balance, but there is an appropriate balance. When we have an over-identification or an over-representation in any area, it causes you to have to address that and find out what is the root cause. Often times, we are treating the symptom, not the cause."
At the retreat, board member John Wells asked who monitors if any discipline training is implemented. Blackwell said that's up to the school's leadership and the central office specialist.
"We didn't get this way this past year," he said. "This has been happening for a period of time."
Blackwell called for the school district as a whole and the community as well to help eliminate the racial gap, starting with making everyone aware of the problem.
"We need to be transparent," he said, "and we've got to get it out there."
Board member Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3 wondered aloud at the retreat, "What makes a principal lenient with one student with the same discipline problem and harsh with another student? What keeps us from being consistent? From my point of view and from the phone calls I get from parents, it seems to fluctuate per school and per principal."
"And per race," Green added.
Assistant Superintendent Rebecca Braaten called for "changing a punitive mindset."
"A lot of us think when a kid gets in trouble, there has to be a consequence," she said. "But if they're out of school, they're not in the classroom, so they're not learning."
Blackmon Road Middle School is an example of a school that has changed its mindset. Its percentage of students with at least one out-of-school suspension jumped from 3.3 percent (27 students) in 2010 to 4.0 percent (34 students) in 2011 and to 5.9 percent (44 students) in 2012. But the stat plunged to 1.0 percent (six students) in 2013.
Marty Richburg, in his fourth year as Blackmon Road's principal, figures several factors have fueled that success:
Focus on the problem. "Early in the year," he said, "that was one of our goals, to reduce those numbers."
Varied teaching methods. "Designing and engaging students in differentiated instruction keeps kids busy," he said. "If they're doing well in the classroom, then we feel like the discipline incidents will go down."
Increased attendance at the prayer breakfasts led by local pastors twice per week. "We started it two years ago, but this year it has grown astronomically," he said. "We have close to upwards of 100 kids in there, and we have only about 600 kids in the school. So a sixth of our population is participating in something positive like that."
Second chances for students whose violations allow school officials discretion. "We are trying to contact parents more instead of the first time issuing that discipline," he said.
MCSD OUT-OF-SCHOOL SUSPENSIONS
The following statistics represent out-of-school suspensions in the Muscogee County School District from August through the first Monday of December in each of the past four years.
Percentage of all students with at least one OSS:
Percentage of those students with at least one OSS who are black:
Percentage of black students with at least one OSS:
The following statistics compare the percentage of all students and black students who had at least one out-of-school suspension (OSS) in the Muscogee County School District from August through the first Monday of December 2013:
School All Black
Allen 0.0 0.0
Blanchard 2.1 5.2
Brewer 12.0 13.7
Britt David 0.2 1.0
Clubview 0.7 0.0
Cusseta Road 10.7 10.7
Davis 3.8 3.4
Dawson 1.9 2.0
Dimon 3.7 3.9
Double Churches 1.6 0.9
Downtown 1.1 1.1
Eagle Ridge 2.1 5.4
Forrest Road 2.9 3.3
Fox 2.7 3.3
Gentian 3.0 3.5
Georgetown 4.4 3.5
Hannan 6.3 8.1
Johnson 0.0 0.0
Key 0.0 0.0
Lonnie Jackson 6.9 7.0
MLK Jr. 5.6 7.3
Mathews 0.2 0.7
Midland 1.2 0.9
Muscogee 2.8 3.1
North Columbus 0.8 1.9
Reese Road 1.8 1.0
Rigdon Road 4.9 4.7
River Road 2.8 4.3
South Columbus 5.0 6.7
St. Marys Road 5.5 5.4
Waddell 0.8 1.3
Wesley Heights 1.5 1.8
Wynnton 0.5 0.3
School All Black
Aaron Cohn 2.2 5.0
Arnold 7.5 10.2
Baker 35.7 39.2
Blackmon Road 1.0 2.2
Double Churches 5.3 8.9
East Columbus 6.1 6.5
Eddy 21.8 24.9
Fort 6.9 6.8
Midland 2.8 4.1
Richards 8.8 12.4
Rothschild 14.5 15.5
Veterans Memorial 5.9 9.3
School All Black
Carver 17.7 18.3
Columbus 0.3 0.0
Early College 1.9 1.6
Hardaway 6.7 8.6
Jordan 13.9 18.6
Kendrick 20.7 21.0
Northside 2.7 3.1
Shaw 4.0 5.2
Spencer 13.0 15.1