The Beaufort County School District will audit its disciplinary services to determine why black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white peers.
Statistics released last weekend showed the gap has gotten worse in recent years, and alarmed some district leaders who quickly pushed for more research into the problem. Superintendent Jeff Moss, who agreed to the audit at a Student Services Committee meeting on Tuesday, said achieving consistent discipline has been a priority of his first two years here, and that he’s not yet satisfied with the results.
“I can see some of the same behaviors are not receiving the same consequences,” Moss said. “We still have some more refining to do, and we're in the process of doing those things, whether with the (disciplinary) hearing officer or drilling down to exactly what occurs in schools.”
According to the 2015-2016 Student Services Report released Friday, black students accounted for 53.7 percent of in- and out-of-school suspensions and 68.8 percent of expulsions, even though they represent 29 percent of the district’s student population.
White students, by comparison, represent 39 percent of the student population but about a quarter of suspensions and a tenth of expulsions. And Hispanic students represent 25 percent of the student population but 18.3 percent of suspensions and 22 percent of expulsions.
An analysis of the information obtained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette also shows that schools with more low-income students have far more suspensions than those in wealthier areas.
Whale Branch Middle School had the highest proportion of suspensions in the district, with 79.8 per 100 students. It also has one of the highest rates of students served by Medicaid, SNAP and other social services — 90 percent.
Moss vowed to take a deep dive into the district’s data and bring solutions back to the Board of Education, which received the statistics in the annual Student Services Report at their work session last weekend.
The district already has some practices in place to make sure students receive the same treatment, regardless of their race, gender or school. School resource officers, social workers and behavior management staff get the same training, and discipline is a common topic in administrators’ leadership meetings, Moss said.
The district also addresses patterns when they arise, such as one school recommending far more students for expulsion.
“It comes through consistent and constant conversations on what is and what is not to be considered a referral” for discipline, said Gregory McCord, the district’s chief auxiliary services officer.
Laura Bush, the board’s vice chair and longtime Bluffton representative, noted the district has conducted an audit before to address the racial disparity, which she said is still “off the charts.”
“To look at this, you'd say the black kids are totally out of control in our schools because they're the ones being reported more often than others,” Bush said. “I don't believe that. I think it's a tolerance level, but I don't want to 'think.' We've got to get some information so we can do something about it.”
Board member Evva Anderson said she was also concerned that male students accounted for about 67 percent of all suspensions.
Because most district teachers are women, they may be more understanding of female students and more intimidated by males, Moss said. That can be addressed with more training, he said.
Education will be key, Moss said, reminding board members that statistics can be a powerful tool.
“Folks don't think about the cumulative effect until the numbers pop up on the screen,” he said. “These reports drive critical conversations with our administrators.”
More highlights from the report
The Student Services Report does not organize schools by the size of their population, but an analysis of the data shows large discrepancies between northern and southern Beaufort County.
Of the top 10 schools to suspend students, only two schools were located south of the Broad River — Hilton Head Middle, ranked at No. 6, and H.E. McCracken Middle, ranked at No. 10.
▪ Battery Creek High came in at No. 2 after Whale Branch Middle with 58.3 suspensions per 100 students, followed by Lady’s Island Middle (55), Beaufort Middle (54) and Whale Branch High (43.9). Each school has a poverty index of at least 66 percent.
▪ One elementary school, St. Helena, made the Top 10, with 41 suspensions per 100 students and a poverty rate nearly as high as Whale Branch Middle’s.
▪ Bluffton High, which suspended about 22 students per 100, had the lowest rate of a secondary school. For comparison, only about 42 percent of its students fall on the poverty index.
▪ The lowest rate of suspensions of the district’s 32 schools — and the smallest number overall — came from Bluffton’s River Ridge Academy, which serves pre-kindergarten through 8th grade and offers the district’s only Montessori program. It doled out just two suspensions in 2015-2016, according to the report.