As Rutherford County Schools grapples with recent racial-discrimination complaints about discipline, state records show that black students continue to be suspended at a much higher rate than their white peers annually.
The district suspended 14.3 percent of its black students last year, more than double the 6 percent suspension rate for white students, according to the Tennessee Department of Education. Those numbers are close to the ones from 1999-2000 when the system suspended 15.6 percent of its black students and 7.3 percent of its white students. The rates in 2005-06 were 18.6 percent of black students being suspended and 7 percent of the white students being suspended.
Numbers and race by themselves can’t tell the entire story for such a volatile issue. Other factors at work include socioeconomics and family structure, factors that research has shown tend to fall disproportionately on the negative side of the spectrum for racial minorities.
But this suspension gap concerns many parents at Rock Springs Middle School. Many of them have made formal complaints to the state accusing the school of discrimination.
“He had never had been in trouble before, ever,” [said Tammy Anderson, a white Rock Springs Middle mother whose son is biracial.]. “He’s a solid B student. They sentenced him to out-of-school suspension when they had other options. They’re using out-of-school suspension as a first choice instead of a last resort. I was livid.”
“I feel like it is racial profiling,” said Anderson, noting how her son fell behind in math and scored a 68 on a test after missing three days of schools. “My son was devastated.”
Rutherford County Schools Director Harry Gill said he’s willing to establish training for teachers to help them better understand cultural differences.
The district expelled 1.4 percent of its black students last year, and that’s the same rate the state reported for the county’s American Indian students. Both these triple the 0.5 percent number of white students who were expelled.
Rock Springs Middle School Principal Pat Essary said recently her school does not tolerate discrimination or harassment from anyone. Her school in the past has faced complaints about its strict dress code or use of corporal punishment.
Although complaints have focused on Rock Springs Middle, the school’s suspension rates are similar to the district’s, with 14.4 percent of the black students receiving the punishment compared to 6.6 percent of the white students. The school’s suspension rate for Hispanic students, however, was 12 percent last year, and that’s higher than the system’s 7.4 percent rate for this ethnic group.
In addition to dealing with her son’s punishment, Anderson received a letter from the district warning her that her son had been truant for five days, including the three suspension days. He was out sick the other two days and was confused about turning in a parent note about his illness, Anderson said. He learned he couldn’t turn it into his homeroom teacher, but he didn’t make the trip to the front office for fear he’d be marked tardy or absent from class.
State-wide trends also show schools suspending black students at a much higher rate, 19.3 percent, than white students, 5.3 percent.
The state examines the complaints on a case-by-case basis to see if the discipline is justified or discriminatory, Farmer said. Sometimes a legitimate disparity can occur.
The state needs evidence of discrimination before it will launch an investigation, she said.
When the state determines a school or system is being discriminatory in issuing discipline, it will work with the school officials to develop a corrective action plan, Farmer said.
A plan typically involves training for district educators.
A Vanderbilt University professor believes there’s a widespread problem in the nation’s public schools.
“This is a national problem,” said Donna Ford, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education & Human Development. “I am convinced that black students more than any other group are suspended and expelled disproportionately. If a school district looks deeper into it, they will find most suspensions are for black males.”
Black children are more likely to be suspended than white students even for minor infractions, Ford said.
Murfreesboro City Schools had a much lower percentage of black students suspended (3.2 percent) than the county system (14.3 percent), according to the 2007 state report card. But that 3.2 percent was quadruple the rate of white city school students (0.8 percent) and mirrors the statewide pattern.
The less teachers know about black students, the more they make up, and that is profiling, Ford said.
“As tough as it is for educators to hear, I am absolutely convinced that racial profiling does happen in school, and it happens frequently,” Ford said.