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Summerville is far from the only community with a disparity in the percentage of black students facing suspensions and expulsions.
National and state statistics, as well as data from other local school districts, show that black students were suspended or expelled at a much higher rate than their white peers.
About 20 black community members brought the issue to light Monday night by protesting Dorchester District 2's discipline policies.
In the Charleston County School District, 5,837 middle and high school students were suspended at least one time last year. Of that total, 4,849 students — or 83 percent — are black, according to Charleston's 2006-07 report of suspensions, expulsions and attendance.
In Charleston schools as a whole, 43 percent of all black high school students and 47 percent of all black middle school students were suspended last year, compared with 10 percent of white high school students and 9 percent of white middle school students.
As for expulsions, 110 out of 131 — or 84 percent — of students kicked out of Charleston schools last year were black, according to the same report.
Charleston's percentages outweigh the statistics in Dorchester District 2 where there are 6,119 black students out of a tototal enrollment of 21,400. The district was the location of Monday night's rally of frustrated parents and expelled students. Out of 2,694 middle and high school students suspended at least one time in District 2 last year, 1,310 pupils, or nearly 49 percent, are black. The suburban district expelled 88 black students out of a total of 157 expelled students last year, or 56 percent of the total.
Louis Smith, a black community member who led the protest, said he didn't realize his concern extended beyond Summerville High School. But Smith, a longtime Summerville resident who now lives in Surfside Beach, said Tuesday that he didn't think he acted too quickly in bringing the group's complaints to the school board without examining how the district's expulsion and suspension data compare with the other local districts as well as state and national average.
"People said we had an abnormal amount of black students expelled and suspended from Summerville High School, and I got some of the numbers to verify that they were correct," Smith said. "We looked at it narrowly. We were focused on our one little village."
District 2 school board member Charlie Stoudenmire said he welcomed Smith's group to the meeting, and agrees that the district needs to analyze if it's doing enough to help minority children. School board Chairman Bo Blanton will propose the creation of a new committee to examine some of the concerns raised by Smith's group, and Stoudenmire said the discussions are needed even if District 2's black suspension and expulsion percentage is not as disproportionate as the rate in some surrounding districts.
"I'll be happy when we save every child," Stoudenmire said. "We haven't done that yet."
Although Smith did not produce state and national figures at Monday's meeting, the data is available from the U.S. Department of Education.
Several years ago, black students accounted for 16.8 percent of the nation's total public school enrollment, according to projected values in the U.S. Department of Education's 2004 Civil Rights Data Collection. Yet black students tallied 37 percent of all out-of-school suspensions handed out to students, and 34.5 percent of the total expulsions nationwide.
During the same year in South Carolina, black students were 38.5 percent of the state's total enrollment, according to the same federal data report. Despite accounting for less than half of the state's student population, blacks tallied 62.8 percent of all out-of-school suspensions and 66 percent of the state's expulsions.
Smith said the local, state and national figures are shocking and prove the black community needs to do more to highlight the discrepancy and discuss the reasons for it. "We should be looking at another major civil rights battle," Smith said. "We have a major issue on our hands."
The Post and Courier requested similar data from all local school districts Tuesday under the Freedom of Information Act, asking them to break down suspensions and expulsions along racial lines. Berkeley County School District officials said they would supply their data today.
Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice in Boston, said the national statistics show the issue isn't just a Southern states problem. Instead, McDevitt said the disproportionate number of black suspensions and expulsions are a result of zero-tolerance policies enacted by some school districts in the wake of violent outbursts on school campuses.
The zero-tolerance policies call for stricter punishments for misbehavior such as petty theft, drugs and fights, McDevitt said, and national research shows that black and Hispanic students are bearing the brunt of the penalties for these infractions. Other experts have called the phenomenon the "school to prison pipeline" as minority youths kicked out of school for disciplinary reasons often find themselves with few options besides crime, he said.
Schools and districts concerned about the disparity should do a more thorough job of monitoring their discipline statistics along racial lines, McDevitt said, adding that most districts don't circulate or publicize their discipline data, especially how suspensions and expulsions break down by race.
"Most schools don't even keep these kinds of records, so they wouldn't know how their discipline strategies are disproportionately affecting one group over another," he said. "If you don't look, you never know. Schools monitor who passes their standardized tests, but not who is leaving their school."
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