When Manatee County School District administrators and the school board began discussing student discipline in late December, statistics on the disproportionate discipline of black students appeared outrageous. But this issue is not exclusive to Manatee County. Districts across Florida and the nation have logged similar inordinate figures.
In Manatee during the 2015-16 school year, black students accounted for 33 percent of out-of-school suspensions although they represent only 14 percent of the student population. The figures are worse the first half of this school year, totalling 35 percent of out-of-school suspensions while white students recorded 32 percent and Hispanics 29 percent.
But the harshest penalty for misconduct often backfires. The intent is aimed at correcting misbehavior, but studies show suspended or expelled students are more likely than their peers to encounter the juvenile justice system, drop out or repeat a grade. The Miami-Dade School District eliminated out-of-school suspensions in favor of alternative schools, avoiding dire possibilities that can have a lifetime impact.
Most of Florida’s largest districts are abandoning suspending students for non-violent behavior, joining a nationwide movement that acknowledges the severe penalty wrongly falls on more black students than other children and puts them far behind in learning.
On other discipline measures, the district is also heading toward large increases in the number of referrals and in-school suspensions this school year. The most common infractions — disrespect and defiance — involve a judgment call by teachers and administrators. Discipline for those vague, subjective infractions can be meted out unevenly, which is not fair to students. Children need to learn the boundaries, and teachers need training and learn strategies on handling difficult situations. Superintendent Diana Greene mentioned those needs, and the district should place a high priority on this coaching.
Rodney Jones, president of the Manatee County branch of the NAACP, laid the blame on problems in the school system and the black community.
“I think there is definitely some racism in the school district because it exists everywhere, so it would be fool-hearty to think it doesn’t exist in the school district. But the other end of it is the black community has some parenting issues. The kids aren’t going to school prepared, and they are going to school with discipline issues,” Jones told Herald education reporter Ryan McKinnon.
Greene told the school board the problem lies deeper than teachers with bias and black students being more likely to misbehave. And her primary interest is equal enforcement of the rules. School districts around the country are addressing that issue by establishing discipline matrixes. Those systems outline punishable misconduct and the specific penalties appropriate to the circumstances. School districts around Florida are heading off unequal punishment by adopting discipline matrixes, which reduce the value of a teacher’s judgment.
Manatee’s district did rewrite the code of student conduct four years ago to ensure equitable and consistent punishment for misbehavior. The code also outlines the expectations and ramifications for student misconduct so there should be no surprises. This system is set up to establish a discipline matrix, thus joining a national trend. But the district is not quite there as the inordinate figures show.
The racial aspect of the disproportionate discipline of black students must be addressed, too. Research indicates teachers and administrators of different races and cultures are susceptible to unconscious discrimination against black students. Teachers misinterpret a black student’s way of communicating as argumentative, combative or defiant when that is the child’s regular way of talking.
Maintaining command in the classroom can be challenging — and tougher with students who have emotional problems, come from broken homes, or are living in extreme poverty .
The possible reasons that black students in the Manatee County School District are disproportionately suspended – three times as often as white students — should motivate administrators to investigate to determine if policy changes, personnel training or other concrete steps are in order.
Sixty-three of the state’s 67 school districts hand out suspensions more evenly among races, the Tampa Bay Times found for its in-depth series of reports on education.
Experts say objective, clearly defined infractions and appropriate, explicit discipline measures that combined relieve teachers and principals of making judgment calls — a discipline matrix. That diminishes the influence, even unconsciously, of racial biases.