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Last week’s news that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to examine the practices of the city’s police department is certainly an important step. It is also an overdue one. It shouldn’t have taken last month’s murder of Freddie Gray by six police officers during what can best be called a questionable arrest for the longstanding and well-documented brutality of Charm City’s law enforcement agency to be addressed.

this_is_dropout_nation_logoYet the federal government must do more than look at the police department. The school discipline practices of Baltimore’s traditional district also need to be investigated. As a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education demonstrates, what happens in the schoolhouse will eventually manifest out of it.

As readers have learned over the past few months, American public education fuels a school-to-prison pipeline that contributes to the incidents of police brutality, criminalization of youth, and state-sanctioned murder of young black men in places such as Ferguson, New York City, and Cleveland. From failing to provide intensive reading remediation to children struggling with literacy, to the condemnation of children black and brown to special ed ghettos, traditional districts all but ensure that far too many kids are at risk of dropping into prison as well as poverty.

But the most-direct way districts send poor and minority kids onto the path to being known by police can be seen in the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. This is particularly clear in Baltimore, where black children (especially those in special ed ghettos) are subjected to such treatment.

Baltimore meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 4,761 black children in 2011-2012, according to data the district submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. This means that 6.6 percent of the black kids attending Charm City’s traditional district schools were suspended. This is a rate higher than the two percent out-of-school suspension rate for Asian and Latino children, and the 2.7 percent for white peers.

The district also meted out in-school suspensions to another 746 black children, or one percent of the all the African-American students in its schools. The rate of in-school suspensions for Baltimore’s black children is higher than the three-tenths of one percent suspension rate for Latino and white peers; not one Asian student was given an in-school suspension that year.

Baltimore expelled some 323 black children, or five-tenths of one percent of all black kids served by the district in 2011-2012. This rate of expulsion is four times higher than the one-tenth of one percent rates for Latino and white students. [Not one Asian was expelled from Baltimore’s schools.]

Meanwhile Baltimore arrested or referred to juvenile court 250 young black men and women in 2011-2012. Four-tenths of one percent of black students in district schools were directly funneled into Charm City’s criminal and juvenile justice systems. This was five and six times higher than the five-hundredths and six hundredths of one percent rates for Latino and white kids, and 8o percent higher than the two-tenths of one percent rate for Asian peers.

Put simply, Baltimore’s black children in regular classrooms have a one-in-10 chance of being subjected to the harshest of school discipline. For white children, it is just a chance of four in 100, a three in 100 for Latino classmates, and two in 100 for Asian peers.

As bad as it is for black children in regular classrooms, it is even worse for those black children condemned by Baltimore to its special ed ghettos.

The district meted out-of-school suspensions to 2,082 black kids in special ed — or 16.5 percent of all the black kids condemned to its ghettos in 2011-2012. This is more than double the out-of-school suspension rate for black kids in regular classrooms. Ten-point-four percent of white children, and 11.4 percent of Latino peers were temporarily tossed out of schools during the school year, rates several times higher than the average for regular classroom peers.

Baltimore also meted out in-school suspensions to another 229 black kids in special ed, or 1.8 percent of them. The good news (if it can be called that) is it was lower than the 2.8 percent in-school suspension rate for Latino classmates and slightly higher than the 1.5 percent rate for white peers. [Again, no Asian students were subjected to such suspensions.]

The district expelled 192 black children in its special ed ghettos; that’s another 1.5 percent of the black children stuck there. The rate of expulsions for black children in special ed was five times higher than the 0.33 percent rate for white children. [The district didn’t kick out any Asian or Latino children.]

Meanwhile Baltimore had 127 black children in special ed arrested or referred to the city’s juvenile justice system. That’s one percent of all the black children forced into even more subpar classrooms than those provided to peers in regular classes. This is 33 percent higher than the 0.67 percent rate of arrest and referral for white peers. [Neither Asian nor Latino children were arrested or referred.]

At least Baltimore doesn’t subject special ed kids to restraints or seclusion (the latter of which would be called solitary confinement by those who are guests of the state). But for Charm City kids, the fact remains that being labeled special ed means being subjected to even more educational abuse.

Given that two out of every five Baltimore kids in special ed are labeled as having a specific learning disability, mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, and developmentally delayed — which are often based on nebulous and arbitrary diagnoses — this means that a significant number of kids who are otherwise capable of learning are being subjected to even greater abuse than they would be in regular classrooms.

As with the police brutality committed by Baltimore’s law enforcement officials, the district’s overuse of harsh school discipline is well-documented. Back in 2004, the Open Society Foundation’s B’more branch determined that the district meted out-of-school suspensions to 29.5 percent of its students. A year later, Advocates for Children and Youth determined that 21 Baltimore elementary schools suspended more than 18 percent of children attending them. Thanks to the philanthropy’s efforts, and that of former district boss Andres Alonso, the district would cut its suspension rate to 8.4 percent by 2009-2010.

Since then, the district has made far less progress on that front. While the district made a commendable decision in April to remove armed school police officers out of buildings and pushing school leaders to handle discipline issues on their own. [Unarmed officers will still work within school buildings.] But advocates question whether the move itself will actually do much to address the district’s overuse of harsh school discipline. Just as importantly, the district’s decision came only after Maryland state legislators halted consideration of House Bill 101, which would have allowed cops to carry weapons inside school buildings (which they were often doing anyway in violation of state law).

It isn’t that black children in Baltimore are more violent than other kids in the district. Four out of every 10 black students in regular and special ed classrooms are suspended either for some form of disruptive behavior or other non-violent reasons, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. These levels are the same for the rest of their classmates. While out-of-school suspensions and other discipline may be merited for the remainder of kids, it still means that two out of every five black children (as well as kids from other backgrounds) are being suspended for behavior that teachers and school leaders can address through more-effective means.

If anything, the overuse of suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and referrals to juvenile justice expose Baltimore’s longstanding problem of providing children with high-quality education. As Contributing Editor Michael Holzman detailed last week and as Dropout Nation has documented over the past two years, the district has long failed to address the literacy issues of the children it serves.

While the five percentage point decline in the number of young black men in eighth grade reading Below Basic (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) between 2009 and 2013 matches that of the nation as a whole, 48 percent of those students are still functionally illiterate, three percentage points greater than the national average. Meanwhile the two percentage point decline in illiteracy among young black men in fourth-grade in that same period trails the three percentage point decline nationwide; 63 percent of those students read Below Basic in 213, eight points greater than the nation as a whole.

With so little progress being made on the literacy front, especially in the early grades, it is no wonder why so many children end up being subjected to harsh school discipline. As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. Put simply, Baltimore overuses harsh school discipline as a cover for its failures in addressing teaching, curricula, and reading remediation.

But the problem extends beyond discipline. As Reid Lyon noted in his 1997 study, illiteracy is the key reason why so many young black men (along with other children) are labeled as special ed cases. Because kids in special ed are more-likely to be subjected to harsh school discipline than peers in regular classrooms, the failures of Baltimore City on the literacy front are even more unconscionable and unacceptable. For the 17 percent of Charm City kids in special ed, they go from educational malpractice to scholastic abuse.

Even the success made by Alonso on the school discipline front was compromised by his inattentiveness to the underlying causes of the problem. His successor, Gregory Thornton, hasn’t made any more progress on this front, either. What has happened in Baltimore is bad black and Latino school leadership, plain and simple. Meanwhile the American Federation of Teachers’ Charm City local and Maryland affiliate have been anything but concerned either about what kids in the care of its members are learning, or about the impact of harsh school discipline and overcriminalization.

But this problem isn’t at the feet of Baltimore’s school leaders and teachers alone. Given that the district has long been under control of Maryland’s state government, Gov. Larry Hogan and immediate predecessor, Martin O’Malley, must also take responsibility for the failure to address both overuse of harsh school discipline as well as the district’s overall failures as an educational going concern.

The good news is that at least the state’s education department has made some important moves over the past few years to force districts such as Baltimore to scale back on suspensions. But given Hogan’s silence on the direction of the district (as well as his overall lack of credibility on the systemic reform front), expecting the governor to push hard on school discipline or any matter without federal intervention is expecting too much.

So it is time for the federal government to step in. The Obama Administration, which has admirably prodded traditional operators such as Minneapolis to ditch its archaic approaches to school discipline, should immediately launch an investigation of the Baltimore City district’s practices. Rawlings-Blake and reformers working in both the city and in Maryland — including Open Society Institute, the Maryland branch of 50CAN, the Center for Education Reform, and NAACP (which is headquartered in Charm City and has no right to be silent on this issue) — should support that move.

By putting pressure on the district to stem these bad practices — as well as overhaul how it provides literacy and other curricula and teaching — more Charm City children can be kept off the path to poverty and prison. Our Freddie Grays deserve better than what Baltimore provides them.

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