A recent audit has revealed that Anne Arundel County schools continue to have a disparity in the percentage of disciplinary referrals issued to African-American students.
School officials who conducted an audit of disciplinary referrals—specifically towards African-American students—presented their findings to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education on Wednesday.
Leading the audit team was Arlen Liverman, AACPS deputy superintendent of schools, and Carlesa Finney, AACPS director of equity assurance and human relations. From December 2011 to May 2012, the team conducted an “audit of student records and a review of the electronic data of discipline referrals for disrespect, insubordination, disruption and inappropriate language,” according to AACPS board documents.
African-American children in Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) make up 22 percent of the total enrollment, but receive 41.1 percent of the “soft referrals” issued by county teachers, according to the auditors. The figures underscore an issue that school officials say they have been working hard to battle.
Finney told the Board of Education that a “myriad of issues” face the county, specifically that the African-American referral rate is almost double the percentage of the demographic enrollment population. During a targeted campaign to study and “eliminate the gap” between referral disparities from December 2011 and March 2012, Finney and Liverman found that the number of “soft referrals” and “all referrals” dropped from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 school years.
But despite the drop, African-American student referrals still remained nearly twice the percentage of its total school enrollment, Finney told the school board.
“It’s significantly frustrating,” Maxwell told Patch. “In trying to eliminate the gap, we have to get even better with [all demographic] groups. What we can do is put a support in place to learn why we have 22 percent African-American students but 45 percent of referrals are African-American students. That’s what this conversation is about.”
School officials said Maxwell’s office began taking a closer look at the county’s referrals and “the gap” between disciplinary actions against white and black students in February 2011, but pressure was heightened just a few months later when the NAACP filed a complaint against AACPS for “disparate treatment” of African-American students. In April 2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced its plans to investigate the NAACP’s claims against AACPS.
Students most likely to receive referrals in AACPS are male, come from low income homes and are African-American, according to a slide presented by the auditors.
Throughout their in-depth presentation to the board, Finney and Liverman explained how their team selected 12 schools, and then chose 500 referrals to examine and specifically learn why each referral was given. During that process, Finney said they found a culture of inconsistency within the school system, especially when it came to “soft referrals”—defined as non-violent offenses that are determined by the subjective judgment of the referring teacher or administrator.
Throughout schools, children express insubordination in different ways such as rolling their eyes, huffing or pushing a book of their desk, but teacher responses to those actions were widely inconsistent in the study, Finney told Patch.
“Inconsistency in responses” was a primary problem during the audit, something the board and the auditors declared was a must-solve when moving forward to eliminating “the gap,” Maxwell said.
A Systematic Approach
Liverman spent the latter parts of the presentation discussing solutions to eliminating “the gap,” and consistently referenced “leadership” and “relationships” between administrators and their teachers as an essential ingredient to that cause. However, board member Deborah Ritchie said she believed more was necessary.
“If we truly want this to happen, we’ve got to start reaching and helping parents understand … You’re talking about relationships, I never heard one time that we’ve got to build relationships with parents,” Ritchie told the auditors.
She added that many problems faced by teachers start in places completely out of their control—like a student’s home. In response, Liverman agreed but said at the heart of their proposed solution to the issue is “more support for our teachers.”
“What we have found is that it takes a systematic approach—looking at our data and looking at how schools look at the students. We’ve never done that before,” Finney told Patch. “This is a very complex issue with years and years of history.”
Board member Solon Webb suggested that perhaps some members of the audit team volunteer to serve as substitute teachers at the schools with higher referral rates to truly understand the situation in AACPS classrooms. The recommendation was met with some uncomfortable fits of casual laughter.
As Wednesday’s meeting concluded, Wanda Stansbury, Co-Chair of the Office of Civil Rights Committee, addressed the board.
“The issue has moved, and I really came here not so much to hear the comments from [Liverman and Finney], I really came to see your reaction because [Liverman] mentioned that how important leadership is to this issue,” she said. “We can have all the great ideas … we can think of some great programs … but if the leadership isn’t there we’re not going to see the change. Leadership from the household to this board room.”