A task force studying the disparity between the number of black and white students suspended in Prince George's County public schools yesterday called for the creation of an ombudsman to act as an advocate for parents and students and a revamping of the system's code of conduct.
The task force was created two years ago after parents and community groups complained about the large number of suspensions and the disproportionate number of black students being suspended from classes.
While total suspensions have dropped steadily from 20,000 in 1984-85 to 9,000 in the just completed school year, the percentage of suspensions of black students has remained high. In a system where slightly more than 60 percent of the students are black, the blacks have received more than 80 percent of the suspensions during the past three years.
"It is dangerous for young students to be out of school," said Prince George's State's Attorney Alex Williams, who headed the task force. "At some time they will end up in my shop: the courts. We want to avoid this."
Superintendent John A. Murphy said he will review the task force's recommendations.
The committee interviewed parents, teachers and students, and examined data from eight schools participating in a special suspension-reporting program.
No one on the seven-member task force attributed the disparity in black and white suspensions to racism. They said they didn't have enough information on which teachers were giving suspensions and to which students and therefore could not make a judgment on the cause of the suspensions.
"Without such empirical data, assertions that suspension of blacks in particular are racially related cannot be refuted," the report said.
Fighting was the most common reason for suspension, the committee found. Of the 9,019 suspensions in 1989-90, 2,818 were for fighting. The next most common reason, insubordination, accounted for 1,581 suspensions.
The committee was most concerned with the student conduct codes, which it said needed to be revised. The codes, according to the committee, are "vague and ambiguous" in their definition of certain terms, including those that make up the majority of infractions.
Misunderstanding of such terms as "disrespect," "loitering" and "insubordination" may have aggravated the problem and increased the number of suspensions, the committee said. Trying to illustrate the problem, the committee asked in its report about the definition of insubordination: "Is it rolling of the eyes? Is it muttering? Or is it whatever school personnel decide under the pressure of the confrontation?" The report also said the codes are difficult for students, teachers and parents to understand because of their complexity and use of legal jargon.
The report also recommended creating the position of ombudsman, who would be an advocate for students and parents in suspensions and expulsions, and monitor suspension trends on a monthly, quarterly, semester and annual basis.