Suspensions in Montgomery County schools are dropping — more for white students than for African-American and Hispanic students, district officials said.
White students already are suspended at lower rates than students in other racial groups at both the high school and middle school levels.
From 2012-13 to 2013-14, the suspension rate for white high school students dropped about 39 percent.
The declines were about 28 percent for African-American high school students and about 29 percent for Hispanic students, according to data shared with the school board on Monday.
“Disproportionate suspensions remain a challenge for us,” Christopher Garran, associate superintendent for high schools, told school board members.
The school system’s recent work addressing suspensions has focused on principals and included training, monthly updates on suspension data, and discussions about best practices and alternatives to suspension.
School board member Christopher S. Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park said he wanted to applaud the work done, but also wanted to “push” school leaders.
Barclay said he thinks the school system is generally not serving African-American male students well and racism has played a role in the school system’s current situation.
“Folks are not dealing with African-American male children the same way they deal with white male children, for a variety of reasons,” Barclay said.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said that as the school system addresses the issue of suspensions, it must support students and counter the effects of other institutions.
“It requires perhaps more than just an equity lens,” he said. “In some ways, it actually requires an anti-racist lens.”
Starr said reducing suspensions does not mean excusing behavior; turning away from suspensions might mean more work for school staff.
Regulations that the state school board adopted in January aim in part to end “disproportionate impact” on minority and special education students.
In all Montgomery County high schools last year, about 9 percent of African-American students were suspended and 4.7 percent of Hispanic students were suspended, compared to 3 percent or less of white students, according to the school system’s 2012-2013 School Safety and Security at a Glance report.
The report does not give specific numbers for values at 3 percent or lower.
In all county middle schools last year, nearly 8 percent of African-American students and 4.5 percent of Hispanic students were suspended, compared to 3 percent or less of white students, according to the same report.
Montgomery County Public Schools and other Maryland school districts have until the beginning of next school year to align their policies with the new state regulations.
Garran said, however, that principals are not waiting for next year.
The progress made this school year, he said, shows the school system is capable of reducing suspensions.
The biggest challenge is in high schools, which have the highest numbers of suspensions, he said.
Two high school principals who have seen their schools’ suspension numbers decrease described how they and their staff have addressed the issue.
Northwood High School has had conversations with frequently suspended students who have raised their concerns about the suspenion process, Principal Mildred Charley-Greene said.
Those converations, she said, helped create training to help staff be respectful to students and make them feel valued.
Scott Murphy, principal of Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, said his school’s staff has built staff-student relationships that are both caring and involve high expectations.
Suspensions still happen, but as a last resort. Schools judge each situation individually, he said.
School board member Judith Docca (District 1) of Montgomery Village, who has worked on the issue of disproportionate suspensions for years, told Charley-Greene that her work is “exactly what we need to do” to help the staff understand how to help students with their behavior.