"How in the hell could you be elected Superintendent of the Year when you are not doing your job?" shouts Carol Walthour, pointing a finger at Superintendent Ann Denlinger during a recent Durham School Board meeting. Her sharp remark comes after Walthour has told the audience of 50 about the plight of her grandson, a former New Jersey honor student whose academic performance has steadily declined since transferring to the Durham public school system. After her outburst causes an awkward momentary silence, the Durham native resumes her commentary, asserting that her grandson is among many who are losing interest and dropping out of a school system unwilling to make a commitment to its African-American students.
Some have characterized criticism of Denlinger, who was recently chosen as the N.C. Association of School Administrators' Superintendent of the Year, as unwarranted. School Board member Arnold Spell told The News & Observer he was "sick and tired of people beating up on Ann," whom he believes is a hard worker with "a lot of respect from folks in the community."
Even some of her most vocal critics don't believe Denlinger, who assumed her post in 1997, is the root cause of problems African-American students are having in Durham. Local NAACP president Curtis Gatewood notes that his group demonstrated against the former interim superintendent, an African American, for similar reasons.
Statistics reveal the real source of frustration for many in the black community. According to the school system's own figures, 75 percent of the 681 students who dropped out during the 1997-98 school year were black, though African Americans only make up 57 percent of total students. At particular risk are black males: A separate N&O study showed that 70 percent entering Durham's high schools in 1994 failed to graduate four years later.
While a great deal of attention has been paid to the dropout rates, there's been less said about what looks like a genuine root cause: the large number of African-American male students serving out-of-school suspensions. Sixty-one percent of all current out-of-school suspensions are being served by African-American males, as opposed to 7 percent for white males.
Few would dispute that there's a correlation between these numbers and dropout rates. Especially for those suspended on a long-term basis (11 days or more), the consequences of roaming the streets and falling behind on course work are well known. "They often don't return to school," admits Assistant Superintendent Bert L'Homme.
One reason for the suspension-to-dropout problem, L'Homme says, has been the lack of any educational program for students serving long-term suspensions. In an effort to change this, L'Homme and Denlinger recently proposed a plan for such a program, unanimously approved by the School Board and county commissioners. Starting this fall, students serving long-term suspensions will be channeled into an Intervention Center staffed by teachers, social workers, psychologists and other "relevant professionals." Under the plan, endorsed by Durham's Youth Coordinating Board, the center's staff will work with students and their parents to determine the causes of the students' behavior, provide applicable services and allow the youngsters to resume their course work.
"There will be a heavy concentration on establishing a personal relationship with the students and their families," says Denlinger, noting that many of these kids "don't see themselves as achievers. We want to provide a supportive environment for them to achieve."
But some feel that plans for the center largely miss the point.
"The Intervention Center may become merely a pre-jail program for black children," says Gatewood, who led a group of 25 protesters into a January School Board meeting to call for an end to racial disparities in school suspension. First, Gatewood says, "We should be making sure African Americans aren't being unfairly suspended."
Gatewood recently wrote Denlinger with several recommendations: Use out-of-school suspensions as a last resort, and only when school safety is jeopardized; stop placing so many black children in special-education classes and alternative programs; and follow the lead of systems like Union County's by hiring consultants with expertise in motivating black students.
Gatewood received a response from the superintendent's office in January, thanking him for his ideas and indicating they'd been forwarded to another administrator for further consideration. But like other critics of the system, he's not satisfied by that, or by plans for the center.
"Nothing in the administration's plan stops black children from being unfairly disciplined," says Gatewood. Like the city's alternative schools for chronically disruptive students, he fears the Intervention Center will further encourage "a segregated school system with an inferior education for black children. They should be planning ways to minimize the number of African Americans being kicked out of school in the first place."
Disparities in suspension and dropout rates are not unique to Durham. More than half of the black males entering high schools in the Wake County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro systems in 1994 failed to graduate four years later. And according to a recent report by the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center, black males represent 16 percent of the state's 1.2 million children, but 45 percent of the students on long-term suspension and 52 percent of those expelled.
Durham's first-quarter suspension figures for this school year are even more dramatic. It's no surprise, in a school system where African Americans make up a majority, that most students serving out-of-school suspensions are black. However, even in schools where they are in the minority, black students--males in particular--are the most likely to be suspended.
At Carrington Middle School, where black males make up 21 percent of the student population, they are six times more likely to serve out-of-school suspensions than their white male counterparts. At Durham School of Arts (DSA), where they also compose 21 percent of the student body, black males are eight times more likely to get out-of-school suspensions.
School officials know there's a problem. "We are very sensitive to these numbers and we deal with them openly," says DSA principal Ed Forsythe. "I often meet with staff on the issue. It's a constant task to find ways to ensure these students are getting what they need to stay in school and be productive."
With this kind of awareness not producing better results, is there a flaw inherent in the system? Not according to Levi Dawson, a hearing officer for the school system who attends all hearings for students suspended long-term. "I believe suspension policies are being carried out objectively," he says.
Here's how those policies work: Once a teacher informs the principal of an infraction, the principal can suspend the student on a short-term basis. If a principal thinks long-term suspension is warranted, Superintendent Denlinger must approve the principal's recommendation.
"It's the school system's policy to go the extra mile to ensure these procedures are carried out fairly," says Denlinger. She notes that all out-of-school suspensions are reviewed at three levels: first by the principal and a committee of teachers, second by the superintendent, and finally by the School Board.
What's the racial breakdown of these decision-makers? According to the state Department of Public Instruction, there is an even split between whites and African Americans in the system's 42 principal posts. However, close to 70 percent of Durham's 2,073 public-school teachers--the ones who often initiate the suspension process--are white.
It would be dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from that statistic. But folks like DSA teacher Alan Dehmer do believe the numbers point to something. "Black kids sometimes get written up for things that could be handled in the classroom," says Dehmer, who has taught in the Durham system for eight years. "Some level of disruption in the classroom is not hard to manage," he says, "especially if you know how to deal with it and not be intimidated by it." His fellow white teachers, Dehmer believes, can "sometimes misinterpret a situation, possibly due to a cultural fear of black males."
When asked if racial bias contributes to the disparities in suspension and dropout rates, District Court Judge Elaine O'Neal replies without hesitation: "Of course it does. And anybody who denies it is telling a story."
In her courtroom, O'Neal frequently sees students who've incurred legal trouble while out on suspension. "We are all products of our environment," she says--which means that educators commonly have difficulty relating to people from different cultures. In the classroom, where "teachers have a mandate to produce results," O'Neal understands why there's a need to resort to disciplinary action at times. But when she sees suspended students who've gotten into trouble with the law, she often wants to ask a few questions of teachers and school officials: "What kind of interventions did you use prior to resorting to out-of-school suspension? Did you talk to the parents? Did you employ other internal disciplinary actions first?"
This past fall, similar questions from a number of parents and the local NAACP chapter prompted the federal Office of Civil Rights to launch an investigation--which continues--into disciplinary practices at Durham's largest high school, Riverside. In one case under review, an African-American male was given a seven-day out-of-school suspension by a white assistant principal for what was documented as a "near-fight." In other words, the student was put out of school for a week for a fight that didn't occur.
Among other cases under review is the relatively light punishment a white female received for stealing a friend's car during school, driving it off the premises and wrecking it in an accident. The student's punishment was five days of in-school suspension.
The principal at the time of both incidents has since left Riverside. The assistant principal who wrote up the "near-fight" did not return The Independent's phone calls about this incident.
"Like any system of rules, those who enforce them have a lot of discretion in determining who gets punished, and how severe that punishment is," says Greg Malhoit, executive director of the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center. As an attorney, Malhoit has represented suspended students in court.
"It's just like our criminal-justice system," he says. "One driver gets a warning, the other a speeding ticket."