Suspension and Disbelief | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Suspension and Disbelief

Who gets suspended from school in Pittsburgh ... and where they go ... remain questions largely unaddressed.

It's nearing 11 a.m. on a Wednesday. Do you know where your children are?


This child, a tawny-complexioned ninth-grader at Westinghouse High School, is walking up Braddock Avenue through Wilkinsburg. She's meeting four friends, including her boyfriend, near Crescent Elementary School in Regent Square.


Why aren't you in school?


"I'm suspended," she says, all smiles and dimples.


Today, after connecting with her clique, she'll go get something to eat - most likely at McDonald's, she says. Then they'll go to the library, of all places, to check their e-mails. Then they'll walk.


"We don't even know which way we're walkin' most times," she says.


They'll end up at a friend's house to watch movies. It's a ritual. And the number of times she's been suspended this school year? "It's not even countable," she says. She guesses 20. For her clique it's become so normal that, when one of them is suspended, the other four play hooky to provide company.


She lives in Homewood with her "strict" grandmother, she says, who believes she's in school.


It's possible she got suspended on purpose, but she won't admit that today. In the past, she confesses, she has earned herself detention by going to class late, and then missing that detention so she can walk out with a suspension.


Her grades, she says, are good -- "amazingly. Considering I haven't been there. I have a B average:"


In the latest figures Pittsburgh Public Schools will release, for the 2001-2002 school year - despite months of requests for more current numbers -- 5,269 black students were suspended compared with 1,943 white students. Of the district's 33,796 students in 2004, 56 percent are black and 38 percent are white.


When children are suspended from school they may be floated by parents or teachers to the Options Center in Lawrenceville or to McNaugher Education Center on the North Side. These are Pittsburgh Public Schools alternative education facilities that take in suspended students for, essentially, day-long study halls. For the most part, though, kids end up floating the streets.


"Personally, I think all youth are at risk" of finding trouble in school, says Darlene DeMarzo.


DeMarzo is coordinator of Project Choice, one program of Life's Work of Western Pennsylvania, an Uptown social service agency where the risks of suspension are minimalized. The program provides job skills training and counseling both in and out of school to kids the system deems most "at risk" -- those with disabilities and those who have been in Juvenile Court. Teens and young adults who've committed crimes are court-ordered to Project Choice, while school districts can refer students who act as if they're headed toward court anyway.


When Pittsburgh Public School students already enrolled in Project Choice are suspended from their regular classrooms, they are sent to the Life's Work building, where they get help with their schoolwork. The district alerts Choice counselor Angela Harris when one of her students is suspended and she'll either pick up the student herself or arrange to have him or her bused.


"And most of the time they come," says Harris.


While Project Choice is open to any county school and funded by the county, 98 percent of DeMarzo's 125 kids come from Pittsburgh Public Schools. That would represent just 2 percent of the 7,300 students suspended by Pittsburgh in 2001-2002. All of the students are black - not by design. DeMarzo believes teachers in the district are intimidated by black students.


"It makes my blood boil," says DeMarzo. Teachers and principals "are not concerned with Johnny missing 20 days in the last 30 days, it's just, 'Let's suspend them, and then we'll charge the parents with truancy.' If things aren't right within the home, whatever [teachers and principals] are saying to that child is not going to work."


Harris sees three to five suspended kids a week. Most of them, she says, are suspended for skipping detention. "They don't want to stay that hour-and-a-half after school so they just leave and take the suspension," says Harris. Some have younger siblings they have to watch after school, so they can't serve the detention, she explains.


When children end up in Harris' care, she talks with them about problems at home that might be leading to problems at school. DeMarzo can point to many Project Choice graduates who changed from high school "problem child" to self-motivated young adult about to graduate from college. Every now and then, though, a student who is showing progress may get caught up in street stress. Last August, Project Choice student Shane Folks was doing well in the program but was murdered near his Hill District home during a dispute over a girlfriend. He would have graduated this year, DeMarzo remarks, a bit choked up.


"We're helping them in terms of tutoring," she says of Choice's current students. "We're working with the students when they go home. That's more effective than sending students home. We have lots of kids who would love nothing more than to stay home for a day."


Studies from Harvard University and the Children's Defense Fund show that black and low-income students are given more frequent out-of-school suspensions than others for minor offenses, and that these disparities reach back decades. According to this year's Black-White Benchmarks report from the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research, the black student suspension rate is about 2.7 times that of white students. The black and white dropout rates are skewed in almost exactly the same way.


A 2000 study of schools nationwide by the Indiana Education Policy Center at Indiana University found that racially disproportional suspensions increased immediately after U.S. schools began desegregating. Russell Skiba, an Indiana University school-violence expert and research analyst who worked on the report, wrote that "... disproportionality in school discipline is due, not to some characteristic of African American students, but to some form of bias or discrimination in the system." His studies found no evidence that black students acted out any more than other students, concluding instead that harder disciplinary measures were overused on low-income students.


Pitt's Benchmark report shows that 46 percent of Pittsburgh's black children live in poverty - seventh highest of 70 major U.S. cities. The report also shows that only 22.3 percent of black children in Pittsburgh are living with both parents - the second worst rate of 70 major cities studied. A child sent home from school in Pittsburgh is most likely headed to an empty home if the sole parent is working. It's not difficult to imagine how a child ends up walking the streets instead of staying home doing schoolwork as they're expected to do.


"I would like to have the question debated as to whether we should do out-of-school suspensions at all," says Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Randall Taylor. "Once the students are gone there's not very much thought about them until they're back in school."


When suspension numbers in Pittsburgh revealed racial disparities a few years ago, many chalked it up to a cultural gap - predominantly white female teachers with difficulty understanding black boys, the largest group suspended. District teachers and officials attended conferences and workshops where educational experts lectured on how to discipline kids in a more culturally sensitive manner. Programs were supposed to be put in place to address the disparities, but they have yet to develop.


Taylor says he doesn't believe such programs are a priority for district administrators. And the theory that white teachers get intimidated by black students doesn't fly with him.


"If you're afraid of students then you're in the wrong job," he says.


Taylor and fellow board member Mark Brentley, both of whom are black, say they've brought to the board suggestions to create different ways of handling problem students without sending them where they would probably rather be: out of school. Brentley says one solution is to have more black male teachers. "Their impact is obvious," says Brentley. "There's no excuse for [the lack of black male teachers] in the current environment."


But after a child receives a suspension, parents have few choices where their kid will land -- if they know their child is suspended at all. Many parents don't want to send their kids to McNaugher or the Option Center, since these places have the reputation of being magnet schools for extremely troubled kids. But if the parents are absent due to hectic work schedules -- or worse, mentally absent due to drug or alcohol problems -- then the child has to fend for him- or herself.


Sherman Shrager, vice president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says it's normal to find a student or two every year who misses more than 100 days of school, excused or not.


"If you keep a kid in school but suspend him every two or three days then it works against you," says Shrager. "We're not fixing the root problems."

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