According to a report issued to the African American Community Roundtable by the Howard County school system, black students in the county were 7 times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates during the 2013 to 2014 school year, the most recent year included in the report.
"The reason we asked for this data is the disproportionality of suspension of black students based on the population they have in the Howard County Public School System," said Towanda Brown, a Howard County parent and member of the community roundtable. "[Black students] make up over 50 percent of suspensions, but they're less than 30 percent of the population in the county."
During the 2013- 2014 school year, 57 percent of the total number of students suspended in kindergarten through 12th grade were black. According to the Maryland State Department of Education Report Card, black students made up 22 percent of the total HCPSS student population during the 2013-2014 school year.
The racial disparity in suspension rates occurs at the national level as well. On average, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in 2014.
Brown said that the AACR requested the suspension statistics from Superintendent Renee Foose three years ago. The organization received the suspension report in June. In previous years, the Howard County chapter of the NAACP collected this data as part of its report on the status of black students in the county's schools.
The African American Community Roundtable is a collection of Howard County organizations and churches that come together around the mission of improving life for black residents in the county. One of its member organizations, The Council of Elders of the Black Community of Howard County, discussed the high rate of suspensions among black students most recently at a community meeting with the HCPSS school board in June.
"I can tell you the effect of this on the kids," Brown said. "The kids think they're always wrong and they don't have the right to express themselves. A lot of them have been deflated. How can I put it? It's like somebody feeling like they don't have rights."
The most common reasons for suspension among black HCPSS students in grades K-12 during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the report, were "attacks, threats, fighting," followed by "disrespect, insubordination and disruption."
As of July 2015, the latter infraction was removed as a reason for giving a student an out-of-school suspension in the HCPSS student code of conduct.
"That is going to make a huge difference," said Brown, who sat on the HCPSS policy committee that made this change. "The majority of teachers in Howard County are white. Because of that and their background, they seem to take when a black student questions them or says anything back to them as disrespect or insubordination. When a black student expresses him or herself or challenges the teacher, it's interpreted as a threat. The teacher thinks, you're disrupting my class, you're disrespecting me, you're not paying attention."
The racial demographics of Howard County teachers are not currently available, but in the state of Maryland, 83 percent of teachers are white, 12 percent are black, and 1 percent are Hispanic, according to a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress.
"We have to teach these teachers that black culture is not the same as the white culture," said Brown. "We talk a little differently. Just because we say it louder or with more excitement, doesn't mean it's disrespectful."
According to the HCPSS suspension report, 12 percent of black middle schoolers and 1 percent of their white classmates were suspended during the 2013-2014 school year. During the same period, 3 percent of black elementary school students were suspended compared to .5 percent of white elementary school students, and 9 percent of black high school students were suspended compared to 2 percent of their white counterparts.
Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, said that there are efforts by educators at the state and national level to combat racial disparities in discipline.
"Research and experience tells us that fighting to keep kids in school — resisting suspension and expulsion — is the best thing we can do, so we are providing training to our educators to make sure they understand this and have the tools they need in their classroom," Lemle wrote in an email.
During the keynote professional development session at the Maryland State Education Association in October, "Ending the School to Prison Pipeline: Building a Positive School Climate, Culture, and Community," participating teachers will learn about the origins of these inequities in discipline and about positive alternatives to suspension.
The "School to Prison Pipeline" describes a national trend in which students who are suspended or expelled receive less classroom time, fall behind in school and become more prone to behavior issues and possibly incarceration.
"Those who are forced out for smaller offenses become hardened, confused, embittered," Carla Amurao wrote in a PBS.org feature, "Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?" "Those who are unnecessarily forced out of school become stigmatized and fall behind in their studies; many eventually decide to drop out of school altogether, and many others commit crimes in their communities."
In Howard County, out-of-school suspensions lead to greater academic disadvantages for black students, Brown said.
"Whenever you have a child who receives an out-of-school suspension, they're missing classroom time and getting further behind," said Brown. "It makes the achievement gap even bigger because they're not in school."
HCPSS spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said that the county's Office of School Administration monitors suspension rates by school and works with principals to ensure that suspensions are not being over-used.
"We do have a disproportionate rate of suspensions for African-American students. This is something that is a national issue, and here in Howard County we have taken very seriously," she said. "We want to make sure out-of-school suspension is used only when it is dangerous for a student to be in school, and that all other progressive discipline has been applied before there's a suspension or expulsion."
Amani-Dove said that HCPSS has implemented programs to improve how behavior is addressed, such as the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a disciplinary method that emphasizes the reinforcement of positive behavior over the punishment of negative behavior.
"That's proven very effective in keeping students engaged in school and helping to manage negative behaviors. We also have our cultural proficiency program, which is really about helping staff to look at their own cultural lenses and how they are interacting with and responding to students," she said. "We believe that continuing to do these programs is going to, over the long run, help to reduce any inequities in how behavior is handled."