SCHOOL PATROL: Hamilton County schools struggle with 'discipline gap'
In February 2019, the Tennessee Department of Education flagged 25 school districts across the state for disproportionately disciplining children with disabilities. In particular, the districts were called out for their treatment of black students. Cleveland City and Hamilton County were among those.
In 2013, Eyewitness News reported on a racial gap that existed in Hamilton County schools, showing black students were suspended or expelled at a significantly higher rate than white students. Six years, and two superintendents later, the issue remains.
Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson said, “It definitely is an area we grapple and struggle with, as do several other systems across the state and nationally.”
In fact, the discipline gap has widened. In the 2011-12 school year, when there were twice as many white students as black students in the county (60% to 30%), the discipline numbers showed black students received 57 percent of discipline referrals, compared to just 40 percent for white students.
According to the Brookings Institute, “black and poor students are suspended at much higher rates than their white and non-poor peers” nationwide. Their study concludes that the reasons “reach beyond the supporting research evidence. Solving these problems will require that we diagnose and address them appropriately.”
In Hamilton County, the most recent numbers show a school district where whites outnumber blacks 53 percent to 30 percent. But the discipline numbers are reversed. In the 2017-18 school year, black students were punished at a much higher rate, receiving 69 percent of the suspensions and expulsions, with white students at only 26 percent.
Dr. Johnson said, “It's important we really investigate the reasons why and find out what caused the disproportionality.”
Although many Hamilton County schools are predominantly black or white, there are some with diverse enrollment. In each case, the discipline gap still causes concern for state and federal government officials. At Central High, there is almost an even mix of black and white students. However, since 2016, 69 percent of suspensions were issued to black students.
At Hixson High, 60 percent of students are white, compared to 24 percent of black students. However, those black students have received 60 percent of the suspensions.
And at Ooltewah High, with a 61 percent white enrollment, and only 22 percent black, the suspension numbers are much closer. The numbers show 224 white students have been punished, compared to 209 black students.
Dr. Johnson admits it is hard to enforce uniform discipline across 75 schools, and some administrators are more “hard line” than others. He says steps are being taken to make sure discipline is handed out fairly and equitably.
He said, “What we want to ensure is that there is consistency across the system. It's a good thing for our district and our children.”
At Brainerd High School suspensions are down significantly at the almost all-black school. In the 2013-14 school year, 750 students were suspended. Four years later, that number was reduced to 475. Still, that is among the highest number of suspensions in Hamilton County high schools.
Hardy Elementary School’s report shows 10 assaults on fellow students of staff members during the current school year. There were 23 such assault reports two years ago, and 22 last year. Brown Middle School reports 15 such assaults in 2016-17.
Harrison Elementary has suspended 20 students during the current school year for “threats.” Woodmore Elementary has suspended 53 students for fighting, and Howard High has expelled 12 students for fighting.
Hispanic students, who make up less than 10 percent of the county’s total enrollment, have a very low suspension rate, which is under one percent at most schools.
In most cases, expulsions are handed down for possession of alcohol and drugs, theft, or assaults on students and staff members. Suspensions are usually issued for fighting and violations of school rules. Male students are suspended at a substantially higher rate than female students.
Dr. Johnson says many of the problems could be solved with more school counselors and truancy officers, and he is hoping those needs will be addressed with additional funding in his latest budget request.
Stay with the WRCB app for updates to this story.