When Muscogee County eighth-graders were scheduled to take a state writing test, Rothschild Middle School principal Michael Forte drove around the neighborhood encouraging students to show up. Accompanying him to one of the homes was a young black teacher who saw for the first time the challenges that many of her students face.
The home they visited had no lights, furniture or groceries. The child's mother had just been released from an intensive care unit and sat on the floor next to a space heater, the electricity rigged from next door.
On the way back to school, the teacher sat quietly, deep in thought, Forte recalled. She had a new perspective of her students and wanted to make a difference.
Forte said the story is a good example of a socioeconomic divide that exists in many Muscogee County schools, leading to high rates of out-of-school suspensions among black students."Schools are designed, engineered and manufactured by the middle class for the middle class," said Forte, who shared the story at a recent diversity conference at Columbus State University. "So when that child comes in and he speaks different, he acts different, your first thing is to hold him to your expectations and your norms based on your value system."
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A national dilemma
Black students are four times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions in the Muscogee County School District than all other races combined, according to district records released in December.
The percentage of black students with at least one out-of-school suspension rose significantly to 83.1 percent in 2013 from 78.3 percent in 2010. The rate is disproportionate to the percentage of black students in the district, which is currently about 60 percent.
The county had a yearly suspension rate of 12.18 percent in 2012, which was higher than the state average of 7.7 percent, according to statistics provided by Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
And the problem is not unique to Muscogee County. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released a comprehensive look at civil rights data from every public school in the country. The study found racial disparities in disciplinary practices even before kindergarten, especially among black and Hispanic boys who were disproportionately affected by suspensions and zero-tolerance policies.
The study covered 97,000 schools and 49 million students. While black students represented only 18 percent of pre-school enrollments, they made up 42 percent of students suspended once and 48 percent of students suspended on multiple occasions. Boys of color were also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out and become apart of the juvenile justice system, according to the report.
Some national leaders, such as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, linked the disparities to what many believe is a "school-to-prison pipeline."
"This critical report shows that racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool," Holder said in a news release. "Every data point represents a life impacted and a future potentially diverted or derailed. This Administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities."
What's not clear, however, is whether racial bias is the reason for such a wide disparity. In Muscogee County, the schools with the highest rates of out-of-school suspensions among black students were predominantly black, with high percentages of students on free and reduced lunch. Many of the principals of the schools are also black.
Schools with the highest rates included Baker Middle, where 39 percent of black students and 36 percent of all students received out-of-school suspensions, and Eddy Middle, with 25 percent of black and 22 percent of all students receiving such discipline. Jordan High had a 13.9 percent out-of-school suspension rate for all students and an 18.6 percent rate for black students. Kendrick High had a 21 percent out-of-school suspension rate for both black and all students, and Carver High School had a 18 percent rate for both groups.
Among elementary schools, Brewer and Cusseta Road had the highest rates of both black and all suspensions. Brewer had 14 percent for blacks and 12 percent for all students, and Cusseta Road had 11 percent for both.
Jeffrey Jones, assistant principal at Eddy Middle, said the problem is complex and not necessarily racial.
"There's not one reason for it, there are many reasons compiled together that caused the storm that nobody seems able to tame right now," he said. "I see it not so much as a black, white, yellow or brown issue, but a green one. When you look at the demographics, you will see that lower-income children tend to be suspended more from school no matter what color they are. A large number of black students come from lower-income families, so that's automatically going to skew the statistics."
Jones said it becomes a perpetual cycle that prevents those stuck in poverty from climbing the economic ladder where they can sustain and educate their children in a manner that leads to their success.
At Eddy Middle, educators try to work with the students, he said. Each grade level has its own discipline protocol. But it becomes difficult when students are uncooperative.
He said some of the out-of-school suspensions included in the district statistics were cases where students have been disciplined multiple of times.
"It's not going to be a different student every time," he said. "It's going to be one student with nine suspensions or seven suspensions because you have a small number of students that no matter what interventions are put in place, they just will not adapt to the fact that a school is a place for learning and there are certain rules that have to be followed in order to keep it that way."
Two weeks ago, Jones said, a student was transferred from another school with more than 60 discipline referrals on his record. The boy told him, "The only reason I'm going to school is because my mama makes me and otherwise I go to jail 'cause the court told me to go to school."
Jones said it's hard to motivate students who come to school with that attitude. He said many of them end up getting suspended.
"Of course I would like to see more tools put in a toolbox that can correct behavior, but a lot of what we do is based on resources, and we could only go so far." Jones said. "One of the biggest struggles we have is trying to maintain an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn. We want a school that's free from distractions and a nurturing place where children can develop."
Forte, formerly the principal at the now defunct Marshall Middle School, is in his first year as principal at Rothschild, which had an out-of-school suspension rate of 14.5 percent for all students and 15.5 percent for blacks.
He said 100 percent of the students at the school are on free and reduced lunch, and 98 percent are black. So, it's no surprise that suspension rates are higher.
"There are situations where you have to make a decision, either you try to save one, or you lose 30," he said at the conference. "It becomes a numbers game. Because there are some children, unfortunately -- maybe not their fault alone -- who make bad decisions and you try your very best. You don't send them home because you want to punish them. You send them home because you want to correct the behavior.
"There's no conspiracy to send children home," he added. "There is no extra money. We do not receive a quota for sending children home. There is no financial incentive for doing that. You do it because if you allow that child to stay in there, it could hurt other children."
Still, Forte believes the situation can be improved by making teachers aware of the homes that children come from and modeling expected behavior at school. The school is currently implementing a program that focuses more on positive reinforcement than punitive measures.
The home factor
Longtime educator Sally Lasseter, director of Education and Guidance Services, said many suspended students come to her center for tutoring. She said the disciplinary problems stem from the home, not the classroom.
"I've worked in this community 35 years and I've watched a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births, the giant number of youngsters in families now with six, seven, eight kids, where there are multiple daddies, but not one daddy in the home, and more and more children being raised by grandparents," Lasseter said. "Whether you're white, black, pink or purple without a two-parent family, where there's a shared responsibility in income and child upbringing, life gets tougher. And I see that as a reason that more of our black boys are suspended.
"I'm not saying it's not the same in the white community," she added. "I'm just saying the percentages are much higher. I truly believe a major issue is lack of parenting."
But Jones, the assistant principal at Eddy, said he wouldn't go that far. He said homes may be part of the problem, but most are trying their best.
"You may have a single mother who is working three jobs to feed those kids and put them through school," he said. "So when that kid's getting off the bus, she can't be at home to greet them and try to work with them on their homework or train them on how to communicate with other people at school. So what type of measures are we as a community putting in place to help that mother teach those children what they need?"
A new approach
Last week, the Muscogee County School Board unanimously approved a new pilot program using a disciplinary approach called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support.
The district will implement the program at selective schools in partnership with Georgia Appleseed, said Melvin Blackwell, the district's chief of student services.
Georgia Appleseed focuses on achieving systemic changes to laws and policies that unfairly impact children, the poor and marginalized throughout the state. The organization will fund the pilot program through a $18,000 grant from the Sapelo Foundation, said Tremaine "Teddy" Reese, the organization's Columbus-based deputy director of projects.
"I don't think it could have come at a better time with the challenges we're facing with the removal of corporal punishment as a disciplinary option," he said, referring to the district's decision to eliminate corporal punishment last year. "Not saying we endorsed that form of discipline one way or the other, but the removal of it took something away from the administrators and we had nothing to fill that void. The school system was desperately looking for something and we're fortunate enough to enjoy a great partnership with them."
According to information provided by Reese: "PBIS is an evidence-based, data driven framework proven to reduce disciplinary incidents, increase a school's sense of safety, improve school climate and support improved academic outcomes for all students."
It focuses on clear rules and expectations, teaching behaviors and recognition, instead of punitive measures, Reese said. Double Churches Middle School has been using it for five years and has seen discipline incidents drop by 62 percent, according to information released by the organization.
Theresa El-Amin of the Southern Anti-Racism Network said PBIS is a nationally recognized program that will benefit the Columbus community.
"It's really a good thing because the suspension numbers here are unusually high, and consistently in some schools over 30 percent of the student population is suspended every year," she said. "I think it's a long time coming because PBIS has been around for well over a decade."
She said educators faced the same disciplinary issues when she lived in Durham, N.C., and they discovered that most teachers just needed more resources.
"Many of the teachers who were suspending students and sending them to the principal's office were teachers who needed more support in managing their classrooms and they were newer teachers for the most part," she said. "It was the whole issue of feeling threatened and disrespected. Their first option was to get the students out of the classroom so they could go ahead and teach."
And it didn't matter if the teachers were black or white.
"It becomes a class issue between middle class and poor people," she said. " It's really a sad situation, but it happens. A lot of people can't understand what poor children face."