It didn’t take long for angry, worried calls to trickle in.
Soon after a group of black parents in Pickerington publicly complained that their children were being unfairly disciplined, phones started ringing at the Columbus NAACP office.
At least 150 people told stories of inequity in local schools, President Noel Williams said last week.
She said the Columbus branch will investigate Pickerington’s disciplinary practices. And in districts across Franklin County, parents are speaking out about a long-standing and growing problem: Black students are disciplined at far greater rates than their white peers, though the vast majority of districts have far fewer black students.
Two-thirds of all suspensions in Franklin County and Pickerington schools affected black students last school year, a Dispatch analysis of state data found, while 28.7 percent of students in those districts were black.
Two years earlier, 58 percent of those suspended were black, and the student population was 28.6 percent black.
At least half of area school districts suspend black students for fighting or disruptive behavior, the most commonly punished offenses, twice as often as their white peers.
In some districts, including Dublin and Worthington, black students are more than five times as likely as whites to be suspended for fighting or disruption.
Members of the African American United Parents of Pickerington spoke at last week’s school board meeting, demanding immediate action to address what they consider inequitable treatment of their children.
In Pickerington, where enrollment is 15 percent black, 188 suspensions were handed out to black students last school year for fighting and disruption. That accounted for about 53 percent of suspensions for those offenses.
Pickerington parents’ outcry sparked renewed concern in other communities, including Groveport Madison. There, Haralson’s group met with district leaders last week to talk about the issue.
The numbers are easier to talk about than the reasons behind them.
An Ohio State University researcher studying the disciplinary disparity said that white teachers often don’t understand black culture.
Sometimes teachers don’t have strong classroom-management skills and overreact to disruptive students, said Gwendolyn Cartledge, an education professor.
Another researcher said that too few teachers can relate to minority students.
“It’s not like were talking about blatantly racist teachers,” said Russ Skiba, an Indiana University professor who has studied race and discipline. “It’s more like they are almost unconscious differences. And they are not huge at any one time, (but) over time those things add up.”
Groveport’s numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Donis Toler, principal of Groveport Madison High School.
“It’s not as bad as what people think,” he said, because many students, black and white, are repeat offenders.
Some districts are listening to parents’ concerns. Others say they are making changes.
Reynoldsburg schools are actively seeking minority teachers, Assistant Superintendent Steve Dackin said. At Reynoldsburg Junior High, the principal says half the battle is knowing there’s a problem.
“If we sit back and say it’s not an issue, we’re only hurting ourselves,” Principal Tyrone Olverson said. Discipline numbers will be better at the junior high this year, he said. The school has placed more administrators in classrooms and hallways, conducts weekly seminars to talk about students’ concerns and has replaced in-school suspension with a 30-minute “timeout” period to reduce lost class time.
Cartledge said losing time in the classroom doesn’t help children, especially those already at risk of falling behind.
“One of the things I think is so important is for schools to understand that the strategies they use for disciplining children actually seem to make the problems worse, rather than better,” she said.
That’s one of the reasons Olverson said he’s willing to take on a problem that other school officials haven’t.
“It’s nothing to be shameful about. There’s no shame, no blame. We admit to our issues. These are our challenges.”