Teachers reject blame in discipline Suspensions of black students at issue

Some Howard County teachers say administrators wrongly blame them for the disproportionate suspension of black elementary school students highlighted in a recent report to the school board.

"Teachers do not cause students to be suspended," said James Swab, president of the Howard County Education Association, the 2,300-member teachers' union.


"Students cause suspensions by their behavior. I think it is wrong and inexcusable for anyone to blame classroom teachers for the suspension of students," Mr. Swab said.

"Children come to school with problems," said Fannie Avery, a teacher at Swansfield Elementary School. "That's why we have school psychologists."


Their comments follow the release last month of a report showing a rise in the proportion of black elementary school students suspended last year, despite a drop in the overall percentage of elementary school suspensions.

That report showed that black students accounted for 52 percent of the 46 elementary school students suspended last year, though blacks were 14 percent of last year's 16,700-student elementary school population.

Students may be suspended for fighting, arson, theft, smoking and drug possession.

School officials were alarmed that black elementary students were involved in 62 percent of the incidents leading to suspensions, up 12 percentage points from the previous year.

Of the 58 incidents leading to suspension, 12 occurred at Guilford Elementary and 11 at Talbott Springs Elementary. Those schools, which had the two highest suspension rates, have black principals and the two highest black enrollments among county elementary schools.

Saying the report highlights an "alarming trend," Director of Elementary Schools Edward Alexander suggested recently that adults may provoke students to misbehave in some cases.

Teachers last week took umbrage at those suggestions.

"If a student is disruptive in a class and learning cannot go on, the teacher has an obligation to remove the student and send the student to the principal," Mr. Swab said.


Principals make suspensions of five days or less. Longer suspensions require the superintendent's approval.

"Parents are well aware of what the discipline policies are. Students are well aware of what the discipline policies are," Ms. Avery said. "It's the teacher who enforces the policy or who carries out the policy."

Mr. Alexander later clarified his statements, saying that all adults -- teachers, administrators, instructional aides and even parents -- should be aware of how their conduct can affect students.

"I know what teachers are dealing with," he said. "I'm not denigrating what they're doing." But he added, "I have to recognize as adults, [we are] supposed to be the mature ones. [We are] supposed to have the training in children's behavior."

Although teachers and administrators shouldn't treat students with different standards, he said, they should have an understanding of cultural factors that may affect students' behavior.

"For example, it is not uncommon for Asian students, when dealing with authority figures, to lower one's eyes," he said. "It is a sign of respect."


But when an adult reprimands the student, and the student continues to look away, "the adult may think it's an insubordinate act," he said. "It's a different cultural frame of reference."

Administrators also need to learn about cultural differences and how they can affect discipline, said Thomas Brown, principal at Talbott Springs.

Mr. Brown, who is black, said he does not know enough about different cultures and tries to get more information by talking with parents and students.

He also said the number of black students suspended at his school is not out of proportion to its large black student population. Talbott Springs has a 40 percent black student population, and about the same percentage of black students were suspended there last year, according to school enrollment figures.

But Ms. Avery, a teacher for more than 20 years, said communication problems based on cultural differences are not as prevalent as students' failure to follow the standard of conduct that is expected of them.

Administrators and teachers agree they share a responsibility in disciplining students and helping them through difficult times. Teachers say they send misbehaving students to the office as a last recourse.


"Teachers call home first. They contact other teachers," said Hilda Barrett, Harper's Choice Middle School teacher and chairwoman of the teachers union's minority affairs committee.