Howard schools working to address disproportionate suspension rates among students

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Howard County students enrolled in the free and reduced-price meals program known as FARMs and those who receive special education services were suspended at a higher rate than their peers last year, according to the school system’s discipline data.

Black students and Hispanic students also were suspended at a higher rate than students of other races.

In 2018, 7.5% of special education students, 5.4% of FARMs students, 5.4% of black students and 2.6% of Hispanic students were suspended from their respective schools.

These numbers are compared to the 2.1% of students of two or more races, 1.1% of white students and 0.6% of Asian American students who were suspended in the same time frame.

While the 77-school district’s 2018 suspension data dropped slightly from the previous year and is consistently lower than the state average, there are still disproportionate suspension rates among student groups.

Howard’s overall suspension rate in 2018 was 2.2%, 2.6% in 2017 and 2.5% in 2016, according to the data. In 2018, the state of Maryland’s average rate was 4.5%.

Laura Johnson, the education chairwoman of Howard County’s NAACP chapter, said it is “disheartening to see the data and I can’t imagine our brown and black girls and boys are doing something so far-fetched and different from their white peers.”

For Johnson, the issue goes beyond discipline.

“How do you create a supportive and nurturing environment for the students?” Johnson said.

“We need to look into the classroom [and ensure] teachers are able to teach in an environment that will create success for our students … not just academic success but be civically grounded, socially grounded and being kind.”

Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said he is “not satisfied” with Howard’s suspension rates, but that he is “very pleased with [the system’s] attention to this topic, the work that is happening, and the community engagement and involvement.”

Even so, “we need to move quick in the terms of our work,” Martirano said.

“How do we respond? When a child is maybe acting in a disrespectful manner, does that warrant a suspension?”

Martirano is focusing his efforts on having students learn from their actions instead of receiving a suspension. However, he said there are still times where a suspension is warranted.

“Subjectively there are a whole host of things that students can learn from,” he said. “My job is to keep students in school, to provide alternatives so they don’t fall behind in the learning process because ultimately I want them to win the long game of graduating from high school as well.”

A multi-tiered system of supports has been established since Martirano joined the school system “to address diverse behavioral needs of all students,” according to the discipline data. This system targets a student’s social emotional learning, positive behavior interventions, mental health supports, community discussions surrounding the discipline data and implementing restorative justice practices — processes that build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflicts and wrongdoings.

Additionally, all 77 schools have to develop and implement an improvement plan that targets disproportionate suspensions. A monthly protocol has been established for all schools to analyze discipline data and for school administrative staff to engage in professional learning and to have administrators focus on equity in their full year evaluation of principals and assistant principals, according to the data report.

Lori Scott, who chairs the county’s Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee, said that while all the strategies in the school system’s multi-step approached are “needed,” there is a shortage of behavioral support staff.

“We need social emotional learning opportunities [and] the whole district needs to learn about restorative justice, but [with] students with disabilities it goes one more step and that is with behavioral support.”

The school system has hosted several community forums to discuss the discipline data.

“This is a significant issue, an issue our community feels strongly about and deserves a lot of attention and requires everyone to be part of the solution,” said Ron Morris, a performance, equity and community response director for the school system.

Out of those meetings, the community has asked for more professional learning in cultural proficiency, training in implicit bias and a request for increased accountability in staff, Morris said.

Johnson said, “Clearly, community conversations are critical to understand the underlying root causes.”

“The town forums were really a chance to peel the layers back and really start to identify at the core of all of this are [the] students,” she said. “The community forums were helpful in opening our eyes … and [realizing] there are important parameters we need in place.”

Earlier this month, the school system presented an equity report to the school board that outlined its “commitment to close opportunity gaps” between students.

“In order to move us to the equitable outcomes we want to see … we are going to have to look at how we can best use our resources and those resources are found in talent, treasure and time,” Kevin Gilbert, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Howard schools, said at the June 5 school board meeting on June 5.

In the report, the school system used graduation rates as “one measure of student success to identify and discuss persistent achievement gaps seen in certain student groups.”

Mirroring the disproportionate discipline data, students of color in Howard had lower graduation rates from 2016 to 2018 than white students, according to a report from the school system.

In 2018, 91.95% of students graduated from the 12 county high schools, according to school data.

The 2018 graduation rates show approximately 95% of white and Asian American students graduated, in comparison to 88.6% of African American students, 76.9% of Hispanic students and 92% of students of two or more races, according to the equity report.

Students in the school system’s FARMs program graduated at a rate of 78.2%; 67.4% of students who received special education services and 43.4% of students who were eligible for English for Speakers of Other Languages graduated.

The school system has worked on a plan to decrease dropout rates and increase graduation rates by creating strategies that will help students become more invested in academics and school-based activities.

The strategies include identifying students early on whose attendance may be an indication they will not finish high school, expanding school-day services for middle and high school students, expanding after-school opportunities for middle and high school students, and engaging family and community members to promote graduation and attendance.

The plan is still being finalized and implementation will depend on funding, according to the equity report.

“This work is going to take a collective work from all of us, from district staff to school staff to families to students to [the] community in order to make sure Howard County Public School System lives up to its vision for being an equitable school system for all of our students,” Gilbert said.

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