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Schools Take Aim at Closing Suspension Gap

Since becoming the Support on Suspension (S.O.S.) site coordinator at the Vienna Teen Center, Diana Levy has seen students from every aspect of the academic scale.

"I have senior advanced placement students who make really bad choices to students who need to be monitored more closely," Levy said. "I've been surprised by some of the faces that have come in the door. They seem like the kid your kids would play sports with."

The Vienna S.O.S. program provides students, mostly from Madison, in Vienna, and Oakton, in Oakton, with a place to go to keep up with their school work when they have been suspended from school. Marshall High School, in Falls Church, has an aggressive in-school program, so Levy has not seen many students from that school come into the center.

While Levy has supervised students from different academic backgrounds, she has seen more white students than minorities take advantage of the program. On the surface, that would seem to fly in the face of the 10 targets the Fairfax County School Board has adopted in its six-year improvement plan. In target 8, the board included a measure aimed at reducing the disparity between minority and white students by 10 percent.

However, the student populations at Madison and Oakton are mostly white. In the 1998-1999 school year, Madison had a total of 1,588 students of which 1,282 were white. At Oakton, the number of whites was 1,803 of 2,425 students. During the same school year, 156 students were suspended from Madison, 114 who were white. For Oakton the total was 189 suspensions with 112 being white students.

So while whites make up more than 80 percent of the student body, they make up only 73 percent of students suspended.

The disparity may not be as easy to observe. In addition, the S.O.S. program is voluntary, so Levy only sees the students whose parents find the program important enough to enroll their children.

"I have had a number of parents that have contacted me about the program, but then didn't show," Levy said.

The problem is more pronounced in other schools. For example, at South Lakes in Reston, black students make up 19.8 percent of the student body, but 42.3 percent of the students suspended. Hispanic students make up 12 percent of the student body, but more than 21 percent of the students suspended.

County-wide, black students make up 10.8 percent of the high school student population, but account for 19.4 percent of high school students suspended.

Although the School Board felt the reduction of suspension rates was important enough to include it in the plan, and the school system data show a gap between the minority and white suspension rates, faculty, students and parents are divided as to whether a gap exists.

<mh>Differing Opinions

<bt>"I don't think in Lake Braddock it's an issue," said Fred Jackson, a member of the school's Minority Parents for Excellence in Education organization. "We're doing an in-school suspension program so that suspension doesn't cripple them academically. The goal is to keep the students in school."

Jackson said a suspension gap is not one of the concerns of the Burke school. So far, he said, it's not an issue that has come to the group's attention.

During the 1998-99 school year, the most recent the suspension rates are available on the school system's Web site, Lake Braddock recorded 120 total suspensions, of which 24 were classified as Asian/Pacific Islander, 11 were black, 15 were Hispanic and 70 were white. The corresponding enrollment that year consisted of 446 Asian/Pacific Islander, 183 Hispanic, 149 black and 1,768 white.

So while white students make up 70 percent of the student body, only 58 percent of students suspended are white. Hispanic students are only 7 percent of the student body, but more than 12 percent of the students suspended are Hispanic. Black students make up 5.8 percent of the student body, but 9 percent of students suspended. On the other hand, Asian students make up 17 percent of the student population, but only 2 percent of students suspended.

"The minority disparity does exist. We have to look at it in the bigger picture," said Bill Oehrlein, associate principal at Hayfield Secondary near Kingstowne. "What we want to do is get the students involved in upper academics, athletics or other activities. Suspension is just one option."

Oehrlein said the difference in behaviors is more closely linked to socio-economics than cultural differences, and for that reason, at Hayfield the administrators try to look at the child's overall situation.

Hayfield High School recorded a total of 150 suspensions in 1998-99, with 16 being identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, 59 black, eight Hispanic and 67 white. The enrollment for the same year included 244 Asian/Pacific Islander, 138 Hispanic, 447 black and 1,218 white students.

So at Hayfield, while white students account for 59 percent of the populations, they make up only 44 percent of students suspended; Black students make up 21.7 percent of the student body, but account for more than 39 percent of students suspended.

<mh>Looking at Each Child

<bt>"We look at the child and see what are his or her needs are and try to address what issues the child is having," said Oehrlein.

Michael Glascoe, assistant superintendent, Department of Educational Accountability, said the rate of suspensions mirrors the achievement gap, not only in Fairfax County but across the country.

"We know closing the achievement gap is going to lower the suspension rate," Glascoe said. "There are some all-school programs that get the entire school working so we don't have to take the drastic step of suspension."

Glascoe said each school has its own policies toward suspensions, with the exception of zero-tolerance offenses such as drugs and weapons. So in one school a student could face suspension for being disrespectful to a teacher, while the response could be different somewhere else.

Cultural sensitivity training is one of the ways the county schools system plans to reduce the disparity between minority and white student suspensions.

"I see trouble with all backgrounds," said junior Jasmine Proffitt at South Lakes High School in Reston. "I don't see minorities treated differently, not at South Lakes, not at all."

South Lakes had 170 students suspended in 1998-99, with one American Indian/Alaskan, 12 Asian/Pacific Islander, 72 black, 36 Hispanic, two undesignated, and 47 white. For the same year, the matching enrollment figures were five American Indians/Alaskans, 180 Asian/Pacific Islander, 203 Hispanic, 328 black, 918 white and five undesignated.

Don Sheldon, assistant superintendent, Department of Administration, said a little bit of a disparity does exist, and that's why the objective regarding suspensions was included in the plan.

"This way we have adopted 10 targets we felt were needed. We felt we could improve on disciplinary issues," Sheldon said. "We believe a child out of school is not being educated, and we're in the education business."