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Discipline data in schools locally, and nationally, under the microscope

While a disparity in discipline among minority students in Carroll County schools is a trend that seems to mirror numbers across the country, school officials say the numbers are skewed due to the school system's low minority population.

Even so, some members of the Board of Education are asking to see more specific data on the discipline.

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Nationally, black students are 3.8 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions than white students. The data, which come from the U.S. Department of Education, hits home in Carroll County, too.

School board members Devon Rothschild and Jennifer Seidel — questioned why, in a July board meeting, numbers were only broken down by gender. The board requested to see the breakdown based on more than gender, specifically race and ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The most recent data — from the 2015-16 school year — is set to be presented at the September board meeting.

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Take a look at the suspensions and expulsions in Carroll County Public Schools

Rothschild has been clear in saying that she has no reason to believe there could be issues — "I'm not implying that there's a problem in any way," she said in an interview with the Times — but, she said, board members need to see the full picture before they assess where they are as a school system. That means breaking discipline data down by school, by race and ethnicity, by all factors that they can.

Nationally, data show that minority students are being disciplined disproportionately to that of their nonminority counterparts. Data from the Maryland State Department of Education's 2014-15 report show that schools across the state, and in Carroll County, appear to follow a similar trend.

It's up to the board to take a closer look at all of the information, Rothschild said.

"[It's important] that there's equality among different subgroups of our students," she said.

Disproportionate discipline

Racial disparities are showing up nationwide, from discipline in schools to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice.

While 6 percent of all K-12 students had one or more out-of-school suspensions, that number is higher for both black boys and girls, according to 2013-14 data from the U.S. Department of Education — 18 percent for black boys and 10 percent for black girls, compared to 5 percent for white boys and 2 percent for white girls, according to the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection "A First Look" report, released in 2016.

Two Carroll public schools, Francis Scott Key High School and Shiloh Middle School, have been recognized for making an effort to instill their students with character.

Carroll County Public Schools don't seem to be an exception.

As of September 2014, black students made up 3.8 percent of enrollment — 973 out of a total 25,879 students. White students made up 86.1 percent, with a total of 22,276 students.

In that same school year, a total of 1,164 incidents of in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension or expulsion were reported to the state education department. Black students were involved in 127, or 10.91 percent of those incidents, whereas white students were involved in 945, or 81.18 percent of those incidents.

This disparity — in which minority students equate to a much larger proportion of the discipline than their share of the student population, and white students make up less than theirs — is seen in surrounding counties as well, according to State Department of Education data.

But Dana Falls, director of student services for CCPS, said it's not fair to draw conclusions from just this content. Falls, who gave the presentation at the July meeting, has been preparing a more detailed breakdown looking at the different categories requested for September's meeting.

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"Yes, we have a disproportionate number of students who are suspended," Falls said.

What it comes down to, though, is a few factors, Falls said. It's important to note that because the minority population in Carroll schools is so small, that can skew the data, he said. In a population that is particularly small, any exception, such as a suspension, could appear more significant than it would in a larger population.

Jean Lewis, president of the county's NAACP chapter, agreed that the small minority population does skew the data. Having been president for about 10 years, she said, they haven't seen major issues.

But, she said, in the small instances there have been issues, they've gone to the school right away.

"When it does come across, I call the school system immediately," Lewis said.

A deeper look at the data

In addition to the possibility of skewed data, Falls said it's necessary to look not just at the end result of suspension, but rather at the progression of discipline — from minor offenses up to suspension — at a closer level.

"As I look at disproportionate data … we're not looking at the aggregate as much as we are school-by-school and then student-by-student," Falls said. "The aggregate doesn't say a lot because the numbers [of minority students] are so small."

Regardless of race, Falls believes the data need to be looked at closer, to see how students' demographics overlap. Namely, he said, it's important to look at levels of poverty and students in special education programs.

"We really are trying to look at that root cause," he said.

From what he's seen, Falls said, many students being suspended fit into multiple demographic subgroups. And what's important in taking this closer look, he added, is looking at what has happened leading up to suspensions.

Discipline is divided into minor referrals, handled by a teacher, and major referrals, handled by an administrator and coming with a suspension, he said.

"If our minor referrals are completely proportional but our suspensions are disproportionate," Falls said, adding that it's time to ask questions about why that is the case.

But if it's aligned with the student's behavior pattern, then it's time to look at different ways to affect change. And in Falls' opinion, suspension can be a means to an end toward helping a student get to an instructional program or behavioral program that better meets their needs.

"In fact, they excel in that environment," he said of alternative programs. "It's not a bad thing. It's a different thing. It's an alternative program."

Falls credits these programs to the school system having very low dropout rates and very high graduation rates. In 2014, the dropout rate was less than or equal to 3 percent, and graduation rates have been greater than 95 percent each of the past three years, according to state data.

"When I look at that, I'm very proud of what we do in this system in regard to discipline," he added.

By the numbers:

3.8 percentage of students enrolled in CCPS who are black

10.91 percentage of students disciplined who are black

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86.1 percentage of students enrolled in CCPS who are white

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81.185 percentage of students disciplined who are white

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