In a county still sensitive and sore from years of fierce desegregation fights, some Prince George's residents may be reluctant to look beneath the surface of the disciplinary report released last week by Superintendent John A. Murphy, which stated that of the 17,000 suspensions last year, 77 percent went to black students. Black students make up 61 percent of the 102,500-student system.
On the face of it, some may conclude that black youths are just bad. After all, look who's committing the crimes and filling up the prisons.
But high on Murphy's list of remedies to the "excessive" suspension problem is improving teacher behavior, because too many of them are ill-prepared to deal with students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds.
This is not an excuse for the insanely stupid behavior that some students exhibited last year. Those who brought weapons or drugs to school should have been expelled. But when it comes to the overwhelming numbers of suspensions for "insubordination" and "disrespect," you have to wonder what black students are doing that white students aren't.
"Sometimes it's the same thing," said Sterling Marshall, principal of Potomac High in Oxon Hill. "I don't want to sound biased, but I have a gut feeling that in our society if a white youth or adult does something it is viewed one way and that when a black does that very same thing it's viewed differently."
Marshall's views are shared by others.
"I don't know why white teachers write suspension letters only for black kids," said Arthur Thomas, director for the Dayton, Ohio-based Center for the Study of Student Citizenship, Rights and Responsibilities. "Whenever a school is desegregated, more black students than white students are suspended. I don't understand that. Nor do I understand why for the same offense white youngsters are suspended and black youngsters are expelled."
Marshall's school is 92 percent black, and has one of the lowest suspension rates in the county. Marshall has a scenario that may help explain the disparity between his school and others.
"Let's take an urban-oriented young man who is from a female-headed household -- a typical black student in our school system today," Marshall said. "He has lots of responsibilities and pressures, from supplementing family income to raising brothers and sisters. He is the man of the house. Now when he comes to school, he has a difficult time with someone trying to take that away from him. You can tell a suburban white kid to 'Sit down and shut up,' and they don't take it personally. Saying that to some of these black kids can develop into something very negative."
The fact that Marshall is black is not believed to have any bearing on his low suspension rates, according to the superintendent's report, which concluded that schools with black principals have suspension rates as high as those with white principals.
But Marshall believes that his race, coupled with his age -- 43 with six years' experience -- are important factors in establishing a rapport with students.
"I am certain that it plays a role because we're talking about role models here," Marshall said. "I really bend over backwards to be the kind of person that many of these boys never had in their lives. Initially, they rejected me. But caring and sensitivity over a long period won them over. And now they are coming back, after graduation, to say thanks."
In the context of the county schools' recently tightened academic standards, some students have become more frustrated. So four times a year, Marshall meets with students and teachers to discuss the pressures and ways to turn "negatives into positives," as he puts it.
"You have to let the students know what you expect of them and make sure the students know we know that they can meet those expectations," Marshall said.
Marshall supports the superintendent's proposals for reducing the suspension problem, including a nationwide search for experts on student disciplinary problems.
A good place to start would be Sterling Marshall's office at Potomac High.