Black students at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools are being suspended disproportionately compared to others, according to a recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education Progress Monitoring Report.
The report states that Black students represented 68% of all students with at least one suspension this school year, down one percent from the previous year.
“While our out-of-school suspension disproportionality rates for Black students is down compared to pre-pandemic rates, there is much more aggressive work that needs to be done,” Crystal Hill, CMS Interim Superintendent, said at a board meeting on Feb. 14.
Why it matters: Black students account for 36.2% of the CMS student body but make up double that in suspension rate, a 32.0 percentage point difference. This demographic is also faced with an academic achievement gap.
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Though the district isn’t satisfied with those numbers, progress has been made since the start of the 2022-2023 academic school year, according to Frank Barnes, chief accountability officer at CMS.
“At the end of the first quarter, we were at about 34 percentage points, not going in the right direction at all,” he told QCity Metro. “By the time we hit December 31, we were at 32 percentage point difference.”
The two main issues for the high suspension rate are few high-quality alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and disciplinary decisions and consequences that were “overly punitive instead of redemptive,” the report states.
Providing equity in the school system
Barnes said the report stems from the district’s ongoing effort to address disparities in performance and how they connect with the demographic of its student body.
CMS initially learned of its suspension issue in 2017 when it created “Breaking the Link,” an annual examination of district progress on equity.
“One of the things we saw was ‘time well used,’ and ways that we lose time is by students being absent and in some instances, students being suspended,” Barnes told QCity Metro. “And what we saw in that report is that we were disproportionately suspending black students.”
Annette Albright, education chair of the local NAACP chapter, said the suspension has a big impact on academic learning and schools shouldn’t be so eager to suspend.
Albright said the district should implement a multi-step suspension process that includes parent intervention before removal is required.
“We have to make sure everybody is using that disciplinary matrix and that principles are being fair and they’re being consistent,” she said.
According to Albright, the suspension rate at predominantly Black schools significantly impacts the report. She said that decreasing the rate would be helpful, but addressing behavior issues would provide a long-term solution.
Those numbers, she said, reflect leadership at each school.
“School culture makes a huge difference, and the person responsible for the culture of the school is the principal,” she said.
To address the issue, the district established short-term suspension sites and in-school intervention centers during the academic school year.
The short-term suspension sites, established in 2017, are Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation locations that serve as alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, providing academic programming from certified teaching staff.
The eight short-term suspension locations include Park and Recreation centers at Albemarle Road, Arbor Glen, Elon, Ivory Baker, Marie G. Davis, Naomi Drenan, Sugar Creek, and Tuckaseegee.
The intervention centers operate at select schools that staff one coordinator and are equipped with the needed materials to continue academic learning, implement restorative practices, and facilitate social-emotional learning.
Since 2020, the district has established 10 total intervention centers at the following schools:
- James Martin Middle School, Kennedy Middle School, McClintock Middle School, Northridge Middle School and Ranson Middle School
- Mallard Creek High School, Myers Park High School, Olympic High School, Rocky River High School and West Charlotte High School.
The district has also hired core behavior specialists and behavior modification technicians to visit schools throughout CMS. Social Emotional Learning is integrated into classroom instruction, the report said.
The district’s goal is to reduce the rate by four more percentage points by the end of the school year and nine percentage points by 2024.
“We are progressing in the right direction,” Barnes said.
In a Q&A with QCity Metro, Barnes discussed the impact of the report and the district’s plans to address the issue.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Student absences/suspensions impact learning. Does the disproportionate number of Black student suspensions have any direct effect on the academic achievement gap?
I would say it has a direct effect on individual students. When you look at the number of students who received at least one out-of-school suspension so far this year – which is around 3,750 [students] – and you compare that to the number of black students we’ve had, cumulatively over 62,000, t’s a very, small proportionate number.
I wouldn’t say that explains any kind of gaps in performance, but when you talk about an individual student, that has a tremendous impact on the time they miss in school and how they can continue their academic pursuits.
Does the issue begin with teachers’ responses or students’ behavior?
I think it’s both. I think part of what we want to do is to make school environments that are engaging and welcoming and that no matter what a student comes in with, the environment or the way we behave as adults doesn’t trigger behavior or response, then triggers our response as an institution.
When a student does have a certain behavior, we want to respond to that in a way that keeps the environment safe and orderly for all students but also recognizes the humanity of that young person so that they can recover from whatever they’ve done, continue their education and feel part of that environment after the incident.
Does the staffing shortage play a role in these suspension numbers?
No. I think some of the suspension disparities that we saw preceded the pandemic and actually have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. I don’t think the staffing issues are connected with that. I think that has a much more lasting academic impact than it does around this kind of behavioral issue.
How have in-school intervention centers and short-term suspension sites been beneficial so far?
The in-school intervention centers are still a little early to tell, but I think they’ve been beneficial. In terms of the short-term suspension sites, they’re staffed with certified teachers and support staff, which means that if there’s been an incident that requires a suspension, the student gets a chance to kind of cool their heads for a very short period of time, continue their academic pursuits, work on their behavior and get support.
In doing so, they are able to then return to their school environment in a restorative manner.
Do you think this provides a true long-term solution to the issue?
It’s the first step as far as a long-term suspension. I think these are things that we have to make part of our systemic approach.
I think also part of what we’re doing, which was mentioned in the report, is being able to focus on the social and emotional health of our students. I think there’s gonna have to be partnerships between school, family and community. We need to be thinking about the public health of our families and students as well as their social and emotional health, which goes beyond the school building. I think we need to create alternative suspensions.
All those elements have to be part of that solution as well as things I haven’t even come up with that schools are doing on their own to help make their schools safe and engaging.
How many core behavior specialists and behavior modification technicians work for the district? How are they assigned to schools?
Right now, we have six core behavior specialists, and we have 152 behavior management technicians.
Core behavior specialists are stationed at a school and then they can branch out in their jurisdiction, their feeder pattern.
There is a mix of behavior management technicians. Some of them are stationed at a school and they are full-time people at that school. Some work with sets of schools, so it varies.
How are they beneficial to the district?
Those people are key elements of that school community. One thing that’s really vital [about] BMTs is their ability to connect with young people and for young people to find them as accessible, trusted adults.
That doesn’t mean that every student calls that person a trusted adult, but you want someone who has that disposition to be able to de-escalate, to be able to mediate, to be able to intervene and support students and build relationships to try to create a safe and engaging environment.
In the report, some schools mentioned their success in addressing the suspension disparity. Is this a one-fix solution for all schools or should each school find what works for its students?
I think there are some fundamentals from particular schools that we should look at. We’re trying to learn from that and integrate that into our strategy as a system. But I think part of our long-term strategy is we have to go to people who are having success in our schools with our students and learn from those school-based strategies to be able to impact district strategies.
We, CMS, have to be a learning organization.
What w you say to parents who aren’t satisfied with the report and want more action?
I think overall, what I would say to all those families is we’re not happy about it either. That’s why it’s something that we’re raising up. It’s something that we’re setting targets for. It’s something we’re investing to reduce, and it’s something that we’re monitoring and reporting on.
Reporting this information is all about transparency. It’s urgency, it’s strategy, and we want all those things.
How can parents help at home?
One of the key things you can do is build a strong relationship with your children’s teachers. It can be as simple as shooting your child’s teacher a text.
Be able to have two-way communication, which is a two-way street. You have been a recipient on the school side. By building those relationships, you can inform the teacher about what your child may be going through at home to help the teacher better assist them in the classroom.