Howard County school officials are stepping up efforts to curb what they call an alarming trend: the disproportionate -- and increasing -- number of black elementary school students being suspended.
Black students comprise just 14 percent of the county's elementary school population.
A relatively small number are suspended each year.
But their involvement in incidents leading to suspension continues to rise -- from 33 percent of such incidents in the 1990-91 school year, to 50 percent in the 1991-92 school year, and 52 percent last year.
In all, 24 of the 46 elementary school students suspended in connection with one or more incidents last year were black.
That trend flies in the face of a drop in overall student suspensions countywide, including at the elementary school level.
It comes despite the school system's two-year effort to reduce black student suspensions.
Instead of blaming the students, some parents and educators are concerned that the school system has been unable to find ways of dealing effectively with disruptive young black students.
"This has been a problem for some time," said Lynne Newsome, who works with the school department's Black Student Achievement Program. "We need to start looking at suspensions not so much as a children problem, but as an adult problem.
"And that's not to deny that there are children [who misbehave]," she added.
In many cases, suspensions result from a clash of cultures and from school personnel inexperienced in dealing with black students, said Jacqueline F. Brown, human relations coordinator for Howard County schools.
For example, a black child disciplined in front of his classmates for misbehaving is likely to show resentment rather than obedience, she said.
"There's a value within the African-American community that you don't let people disrespect you," she said. "African-Americans do not like to be embarrassed. They don't like to be humiliated. They have been taught that respect and pride are important things. And when people are out to embarrass them, they fight back.
"I don't know if teachers know what they're doing is disrespectful," she added. "In most cases, they don't. The teachers [react by being] flabbergasted, because they think they're doing the routine discipline."
Edward Alexander, the school department's director of elementary education, said teachers sometimes provoke misbehavior, sending students to the office for "perceived acts of insubordination."
"And sometimes, these insubordinate acts have been caused by the adult behavior that set kids up to behave inappropriately -- yelling at a kid, singling a child for reprimand in front of peers," he said.
Some parents call on school officials to find different ways of dealing with students who misbehave. That might include community service or extra school work.
"Sending a child home when there's no parent or anybody else there, that's not helping the child," said Ionnie Butler, a parent. "There should be some other alternatives."
School officials hold high hopes for programs that already have reduced elementary school suspensions in general.
Mr. Alexander cited a program called "World of Difference," which focuses on cultural differences and on peer mediation, or getting students to work with one another to resolve conflicts.
At Running Brook Elementary School, meanwhile, teachers take turns patrolling outside the building before school and during recess, times when the most fights occur, said Principal Debbie Drown.
Instead of suspending students for fighting, she requires the students who had a clash to play a board game that takes cooperation.
"We're trying to deal with [misbehaving students in] pro-active ways," said Ms. Drown, whose school had four suspensions last year, none for fighting.
"We try to talk about the problem rather than punishing the offense. We're trying to work through it and avoid suspensions," she said.
And school officials say that colleges and universities have a role to play, by educating future teachers to better deal with students from different cultural backgrounds.
"Teacher training institutions have not prepared any of us to deal effectively with the minority population," said Thomas Brown, principal at Talbott Springs Elementary School.
"Teachers need to seek information about minority cultures. They need to form a knowledge base so they can modify some of their . . . views," he said.