Public schools have a tough job when it comes to student discipline. As centers of learning, they are required to maintain an environment conducive to learning. To that end, they have codes of student conduct to regulate behavior on school grounds, with penalties for infractions. In a series of articles this week, Doug Livingston, the Beacon Journal education writer, explored discipline in the Akron Public Schools, noting the disproportionate impact on black students.
Among Ohio’s large urban districts, the Akron school district has the highest rate of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, at a rate three times the state average in 2010-11, the majority of the action involving black students. When students are not in school, chances are they are not keeping up with their studies, limiting their options in the future. Given the correlation between discipline problems and dropout rates, Akron’s high rate of suspensions and expulsions is at odds with the district’s commitment to raise student achievement and graduation rates across the board.
Yet the district is in a bind, too: Keep students who have behavior problems in regular school, and they can make it impossible to teach and learn, or they put others at risk of injury. As a school official noted, about 89 percent of students never face disciplinary action.
It is troubling that black students are more often and more harshly disciplined than others — and not only in Akron. Statewide, black students are five times more likely than whites to be disciplined. A recent analysis of federal data showed that in 2009-10, black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled. But it serves little purpose to attribute all that to racism if black students are violating school rules with greater frequency than others.
The disparity, undisputed by school officials, poses a challenge: To be clear why the behavior of a small percentage of students puts them in trouble and to offer effective tools for correction. It is encouraging the district provides various alternative programs. It is up to school board and the community to put forth the resources to scale them up, as Cincinnati Public Schools has done with success.