Under pressure to reduce the suspension rate of black students, Anne Arundel County is making progress by training staff in how to work with people of different backgrounds and giving troublesome students more support.
Experts say such training is a key to keeping African-American students throughout Maryland in school. Last year, 13.9 percent of black children were suspended statewide, compared with 5.8 percent of white kids. Studies have linked suspensions and expulsions to lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.
Teachers and administrators may misinterpret the body language and occasional confrontational behavior that some African-Americans learn in their neighborhoods and use at school as a way of standing up for themselves, veteran educators say. They will often back down if they're made to feel safe.
"Being rude means one thing to you and another to me," said Ella White Campbell, a retired city school teacher and an education advocate in Baltimore County.
Anne Arundel schools have been suspending black students at a much higher than average rate - nearly 20 percent in each of the past two years. The NAACP and a group of parents filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights alleging discriminatory treatment of black students. In response, the county signed an agreement in September 2005 that, among other things, required schools to act to reduce suspension rates.
Principals, assistant principals, psychologists and other administrators receive two days of training, according to Carlesa Finney, director of equity assurance in Anne Arundel. School officials also adopted a new discipline code and placed added emphasis on intervening in the lives of the most troubled students.
While the overall suspension rate for black students hasn't fallen, they are receiving fewer long-term suspensions, county data show. In addition, significantly fewer black children are being referred to principals' offices for misbehavior.
Other school systems are also training teachers. "Teachers," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said, "have the ability to escalate or de-escalate a situation."
Finney says negative stereotypes of black children play into teachers' perceptions of student behavior. Schools need to help teachers overcome that bias and do more than teach "content."
"We have the opportunity to teach children to behave in particular settings," she said.
Much of the teaching staff in many counties is white and may be inexperienced in dealing with children from troubled neighborhoods.
"We get 900 new teachers every year. Most of them have never taught in an urban-like setting," said Dale R. Rauenzahn, director of student support services in Baltimore County.
Craig Cummings, coordinator of alternative programs in Howard County, said he believes the issue may not just be race but also family income. Although the state does not collect suspension data broken down this way, Cummings believes low-income students are more likely to be suspended than others. In those households, he said, parents may be working long hours and have less time for their children.
The suspension rate for black students has been on the rise. A study by University of Maryland researchers published last year found that in 1995 African-American students were 1 1/2 times more likely to be suspended than other children enrolled in Maryland public schools.
A decade later as discipline policies were tightened, African-Americans were 2 1/2 times more likely to be suspended, particularly for small infractions.