RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina schools need to reduce high rates of suspensions and address racial disparities that see black students getting punished more frequently than others, according to advocates, researchers and state officials.
If they don't, not only will statewide goals like improved graduation rates be imperiled, but troubled students will be at a greater risk of bouncing out of school and into the criminal justice system, they argue.
"Suspensions push students out of school and into the school-to-prison pipeline," said Rukiya Dillahunt, a retired Wake County teacher and administrator who now serves as chairwoman of the Parent Advocacy Work Group. "Students who get suspended lose a lot of academic ground, especially when there are no alternative options."
The closure of several predominantly nonwhite schools in Charlotte and the end of Wake County's socio-economic diversity program have drawn national attention to race in North Carolina schools. A coalition of 90 groups is planning a march in the capital city Saturday largely in response to the Wake dispute, which civil rights organizations like the NAACP contend amounts to a backdoor attempt to resegregate the school system.
Beneath those headline-grabbing clashes, though, researchers and advocates say data on school disciplinary actions point to a wider and more deeply rooted problem in which countless hours of classroom time are lost and black students are far likelier to face sanctions ranging from suspension to criminal prosecution than their white counterparts.
"You have youngsters who are being repeatedly, chronically and persistently put out of school and losing instruction time," said Jerri Katzerman, director of educational advocacy at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has funded nationwide studies of disparities in classroom punishments.
North Carolina ranks third nationally in the rate of school suspensions, behind South Carolina and Delaware, according to National Center for Education Statistics. In 2008-2009, the most recent year for which the state Department of Public Instruction has figures, there were over 293,000 short-term suspensions and about 3,600 long-term suspensions, or roughly one suspension for every 10 students.
The numbers, like school discipline policies themselves, vary widely by district: There was just one short-term suspension per 100 students in Avery County, compared to 111 suspensions per 100 students in Robeson County, the state's highest rate.
"It all comes down to local boards of education and local policies," said Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer for the Department of Public Instruction. The state takes a mostly hands-off role in school discipline, prescribing punishments only for serious offenses like bomb threats and bringing weapons to school.
But the state is getting involved in trying to bring down the number of suspensions by encouraging the development of alternatives to lost class time, Garland said. Night classes, alternative schools, online lessons and opportunities for students to take classes at community colleges are increasingly preferred to simply sending a student home, she said.
The goal is to boost student achievement as measured in standards like graduation rates, Garland said, and districts are learning that's harder to do with thousands of suspensions handed out every year.
"Schools are accountable for these kids, and we all know that the more they're suspended, the less likely they are to graduate," she said.
But school discipline itself isn't the only issue for advocates like Jason Langberg, a fellow at Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit that links law students and lawyers with various communities and causes.
Langberg obtained data from the 2009-2010 school year in Wake County, with numbers showing that, while black students made up about 26 percent of the overall student population, they received 61 percent of short-term suspensions and nearly 63 percent of long-term suspensions.
Statewide, there are four short-term suspensions handed out for every 10 black students, compared to one suspension for every 10 white students.
"These are just huge disparities," Langberg said.
Racial disparities in discipline were part of a legal complaint filed with the Department of Education regarding Wake schools last year by the NAACP and other groups. And even before that, the department's Office for Civil Rights began a review of racial disparities in discipline at Forsyth County schools.
Officials in Forsyth County, where black students were about four times more likely to be suspended than whites, according to DPI data, are cooperating with the federal review, spokesman Theo Helm said.
"We enforce our policies based on the way they're written, and we don't believe we discriminate," he said.
Calls to Wake County schools were referred to board of education members, who did not immediately respond.
DPI's Garland said glaring racial differences in punishment rates should be cause for review by individual districts, but she doesn't believe there are deliberate efforts to marginalize black students.
"I would hope we don't have people who go into education intentionally planning to suspend one group of people more than another," she said, "But if the disparity's there, then something's driving it and we need to get the root of the cause."