Last year, for example, one in seven black students in St. Mary’s County were suspended from school, compared with one in 20 white students. In Alexandria, black students were nearly six times as likely to be suspended as their white peers.
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In Fairfax, where the suicide in January of a white high school football player who had been suspended brought an outcry for change, African American students were four times as likely that year to be suspended as white students, and Hispanic students were twice as likely.
The problems extend beyond the Washington area to school districts across the country and are among a host of concerns about school discipline that sparked a joint effort by the U.S. Justice and Education departments in July to look into reforms.
Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in suspensions. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.
In the Washington region, many school leaders said they are increasingly focused on the problem and grappling with ways to close the gap.
In Montgomery, Deputy Superintendent Frieda K. Lacey said the district has trained principals and administrators in new approaches, which include involving a team of administrators in suspension decisions.
Still, she said, much remains to be done. Nearly 6 percent of black students were suspended or expelled from school last year, compared with 1.2 percent of white students. The gap remains even as suspensions are down since 2006 across all racial groups.
She pointed to one unsettling statistic: 71 percent of suspensions for insubordination, a relatively rare offense in the county, were handed out to black students. African Americans make up 21 percent of students in Montgomery’s schools. The goal is to dig deeper into the data, offer more professional development and share best practices, she said. “We don’t try to minimize the data,” Lacey said. “We just try to talk about it the way it exists.”
The Post’s analysis found that in the Washington suburbs alone, more than 35,000 students were suspended or expelled from school at some point last school year — more than half of them black students.
In interviews, many school officials noted successes in reducing overall suspensions during the past several years and cited cultural-sensitivity training and positive-behavior initiatives that are more proactive about discipline.