Black students significantly more likely to face suspension in North Carolina

Black students significantly more likely to face suspension in North Carolina
March 31
00:00 2016
Illustration by Ron Rogers for The Chronicle

Billy Ball

Guest Columnist

N.C. Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County and the chairman of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, insists he’s not overstating the crisis for black students in North Carolina today.

Not after a recent report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), that showed—once again—staggeringly high suspension rates for North Carolina’s black students.

The report showed that black students in North Carolina continued to be significantly more likely to receive short-term and long-term suspensions than their white peers in 2014-2015.

State policies allow for administrators to employ in-school or short-term suspensions, which allow for out-of-school suspension of one to 10 days. More serious offenses could be punished with long-term, out-of-school suspension from 11 days to the remainder of the school year.

The rate of short-term suspensions, about three for every 10 black students in North Carolina, more than tripled that for white students. And for long-term suspensions, the rate—about 153 per every 100,000 black students—more than quadrupled the rate for white students, according to DPI data.

State data does not break down suspension figures to show whether students are being treated equally across race lines for the same offenses, but some school critics have suggested black students are sometimes suspended for offenses that would prompt reprimands for their peers.

Indeed, last week, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson told state board members that she believed cultural differences sometimes can play a key role in school suspensions.

“What may be disrespectful in one culture may not be disrespectful in another,” said Atkinson, adding that increased professional development for school staff could assuage the problem.

According to Atkinson, the problem requires a range of reforms, as well as community buy-in. Atkinson pointed out controlled substances and weapons were the top two reasons for suspensions last year.

“So suspensions are not only challenges for our schools, but they are challenges for our communities,” she said.

While the state chapter of the NAACP did not respond to interview requests for this story, Rep. Pierce said the Legislative Black Caucus, a network of state lawmakers of African-American and Native American descent, is planning a tour of counties with the best and worst numbers in the suspension data following the primaries.

Pierce said the goal is to learn what some counties are doing right and, more importantly, what they’re doing wrong.

While Pierce wasn’t willing to blame racism for the disparity—arguing, like Atkinson, that cultural differences could be a large factor—other leaders were not so optimistic.

Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., a Democrat from Forsyth County who serves as vice chairman of the House Education Committee, lashed out at state education leaders in an email to Policy Watch, arguing that the suspension gap is pushing black students out of public schools and into charter schools and private schools.

“I mean, for the life of me, I can’t fathom why more and more black parents are looking for an exit from public schools that both Democrat and Republican mostly white legislators have allowed to chew up black kids,” Hanes wrote.

Hanes’ district includes the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district, the fourth-largest in the state. According to DPI data, suspensions among black students nearly quadrupled the number among white students in 2014-2015, despite the fact that black students make up less than 30 percent of total enrollment.

Hanes was among a handful of Democrats who rankled some liberals in 2013 when they backed the GOP – launched Opportunity Scholarship Program, a controversial program of public vouchers that helps pay for low-income children to attend private schools, most of them with religious backgrounds.

And with research indicating a correlation between suspensions and drop-outs, Hanes went on to argue that the state’s disciplinary practices may be dealing long-term damage to North Carolina’s black residents.

State education officials may soon have an answer for that complaint. Ken Gattis, a DPI researcher, tells Policy Watch that a committee at the department has been brainstorming possible solutions for the issue for more than a year.

By next month, Gattis said he hopes to have a program online that will allow system superintendents and school principals to access disaggregated figures before making disciplinary decisions. It’s unclear, according to Gattis, whether that information would be deemed public record.

Atkinson said it’s a multi-pronged system of reforms, as well as data analysis, that will pay dividends, adding that she will advocate for greater lever-age for administrators to make judgment calls on suspensions, rather than imposing certain “zero-tolerance” rules.

Billy Ball,  Education Reporter, joined N.C. Policy Watch in January 2016. He covers public education at the N.C. General Assembly and the State Board of Education. Before joining the project, Billy was a staff writer and investigative reporter for  the Independent Weekly for more than three years, covering education, the environment, politics and the criminal justice system. Before that, Billy served as a general assignment reporter for  the Sanford Herald  and the Monroe Enquirer-Journal.  Contact him at or 919-861-1460

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Copyright © 2015 NC Policy Watch. All rights reserved.

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