Why CMS data on race and suspensions could shape talks about where kids go to school

Despite efforts to keep students in school and reduce racial disparities in discipline, out-of-school suspensions rose in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year, with the biggest increase among black students.

In CMS, black students were suspended at almost nine times the rate of white ones, an analysis of the data in a new state report shows. The district’s suspension rate for black students is similar to the state’s, while white students in CMS are less likely to be suspended than their counterparts statewide, an Observer analysis shows.

Those numbers highlight some of the challenges CMS faces as leaders continue their quest to shape student assignment in ways that break up concentrations of disadvantage and give all students their best shot at success.

Suspension data is part of the 2015-16 school crime and discipline report presented to the state Board of Education on Wednesday.

Black students accounted for 40 percent of enrollment but 79 percent of short-term suspensions reported in CMS last year, the report shows. Black males alone accounted for more than half of the 23,648 suspensions.

The trend is hardly unique to CMS. The Raleigh-based Public School Forum of North Carolina recently labeled racial disparities, including suspension rates, as one of the Top 10 issues facing the state in 2017.

“Race today, just as in yesteryear, determines so much of the educational experience of our students,” said James Ford, a former CMS teacher who is now the forum’s program director.

The vast majority of suspensions given statewide are for 10 days or less, considered short term. Long-term suspensions and expulsion are relatively rare, reserved for serious offenses such as bringing a gun to school or committing violent acts.

CMS board members and administrators have all acknowledged the race gap in suspensions and talked about the need to keep students in school after minor infractions. Top leaders and many teachers have gone through training to recognize implicit biases that may shape how they respond to students. A school board committee has discussed a moratorium on suspending the youngest students, where members such as Ericka Ellis-Stewart argue the sidelining of black male students starts.

Some contend the numbers merely reflect reality: Black students, and boys in particular, cause most of the trouble. But many of the infractions that lead to black students being removed from school are based on “judgment call” issues, such as insubordination or disrupting class, rather than clear-cut offenses such as being caught with a weapon or drugs.

The state report, combined with enrollment tallies for 2015-16, indicate that black students in CMS logged a rate of 32.1 suspensions per 100 students, compared with 8.4 for Hispanics, 3.6 for whites and 2.3 for Asians. Those rates are similar statewide except for white students, who are about twice as likely to be suspended statewide as in CMS.

The numbers don’t mean that almost one-third of black students in CMS were suspended. Students with multiple suspensions drive up the rate. In fact, two small alternative schools and one regular school in CMS, Ashley Park PreK-8 School, logged more than 100 suspensions per 100 students.

The school tallies illustrate some of the challenges facing CMS as the school board moves into the neighborhood school phase of its long-running student assignment review. One of the goals is to break up concentrations of poverty that can make it difficult for students to excel.

The 13 non-alternative schools with suspension rates above 50 per 100 students are all what some would call hypersegregated: less than 10 percent white, with very high poverty levels. Advocates for breaking up such concentrations say the high suspension rate illustrates the need for change. But the fear that reassignment could redistribute students with behavior problems can boost resistance from families in low-poverty, high-performing schools.

Four of the high-suspension schools are K-8 schools that were created hastily during controversial school closings and mergers done during the recession. Then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and the board at the time overrode parent fears about discipline, saying the schools would become high-performing and the smaller middle school group would enhance safety.

That decision remains a sore spot in parts of the community, as academic performance remains low and concerns about behavior remain. As the CMS staff holds public meetings to discuss boundary changes, Superintendent Ann Clark plans to ask if families in those zones want to see the schools restored to separate elementary and middle schools.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

CMS suspensions by race


40 percent of students

79 percent of short-term suspensions

32.1 suspensions per 100 students


29 percent of students

7 percent of short-term suspensions

3.6 suspensions per 100 students


21 percent of students

11 percent of short-term suspensions

8.4 suspensions per 100 students


6 percent of students

1 percent of short-term suspensions

2.3 suspensions per 100 students

Highest suspension rates

Suspensions per 100 students; because some students are suspended multiple times, the rate can be higher than 100. Turning Point and Lincoln Heights are small alternative schools serving students with behavioral issues.

Turning Point Academy: 238.65

Lincoln Heights Academy: 213

Ashley Park PreK-8 School: 124.49

Reid Park Academy: 75.57

Whitewater Middle: 73.22

Ranson Middle: 69.8

Byers School: 64.84

West Mecklenburg High: 63.22

Martin Middle: 60.7

West Charlotte High: 57.15

Coulwood STEM: 57.04

Cochrane Collegiate: 56

Garinger High: 53.73

Druid Hills Academy: 52.54

Vance High: 50.71