I-TEAM: Data shows black students 2 to 4 times more likely to be punished in our three largest school districts

Tuesday, August 06, 2019
News 12 at 6 O’Clock/NBC at 7

This summer, our I-Team compiled information for each public school in our area's three largest counties -- 130 schools in all. (Source: WRDW)

AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- Our I-Team has been hard at work with some back-to-school homework of our own, and what we've uncovered is eye-opening when it comes to race.

This summer, we compiled information for each public school in our area's three largest counties -- 130 schools in all.

When talking about race, there can be plenty of gray areas. That's why we went to numbers -- because numbers are black and white -- but what those numbers show about our black students and our white students is difficult to ignore.

So let’s narrow our focus a bit on the case of Jerome Simmons.

“All the music promotes is drugs, guns,” Simmons said.

For Simmons, the siren call of that music – led to sirens.

It was a year-long sting known as Operation Gunsmoke. We first told you about it in March. It netted 26 people, including Simmons, who was arrested for drugs and selling guns.

Soon, Simmons will face the music, which is why he’s changing his tune.

"Y'all our future,” Simmons said to a group of students in the Teen After School Center. “I look up to you, man. I hate to see you on the news and do something wrong. Just let you know."

Five months after being federally indicted, Simmons is on the news again. This time, he’s wearing an ankle monitor and hoping to change lives.

“It can’t be a mistake if you don’t own up to it,” Simmons said to the students.

Simmons volunteers for TASC to help students like Travis Taylor and his friend, Isiah Foster.

“I stole something,” Taylor said.

And for Foster, he admitted to “bad choices” leading him to TASC.

But they aren't bad kids. Chris Emanuel believes they're navigating a system that automatically gives them a bad rap.

"It's beating them down,” Emanuel said. “They are targeted every single day. It's hard being black, you know?”

It seems it's especially hard being black in our local schools. Here's how we're able to say that.

We pulled data for all 59 schools in Richmond County, all 42 in Aiken County, and all 32 in Columbia County. It shows in-school suspensions, out of school suspensions, and expulsions along with each student's race. We took each profile and created district databases so we could go beyond the numbers.

[WEB EXTRA: Take a look at the records for each school in Aiken, Columbia, and Richmond counties]

We wanted to know the rates. In all three counties, we found black students get in-school and out of school suspensions at a rate more than two times of white students.

We found the biggest disparities with expulsions. Our I-Team found black students in Richmond County get expelled at a rate four times that of their white classmates. In Aiken and Columbia counties, it's three times the rate.

But there is something to consider with this data. A student can get suspended or expelled for being late or absent too many times. But that’s not always the student’s fault.

Many older students have to get younger brothers or sisters ready in the morning and could be late. There are also other transportation issues to consider, such as having unreliable forms of transportation.

So what happens then? Kids are sent to alternative school or sent home. Many end up in the street with no adult supervision.

"And that goes on every day out here. Right now,” Simmons said. “Brothers and sisters look up to each other more than their mothers and fathers because they not there. They have to work two and three jobs just to take care of home.”
That's where Simmons says he can step in -- so kids like Foster and Taylor learn from their mistakes and his own.

“I'm happy I got caught,” Taylor said. “It won't be like when I got older, I could have really got in trouble. So that's why I'm really happy I learned my lesson from it while I was younger."

Chris Emanuel says we have to take an honest look at our local communities to help these kids.

"In order to fix the problem, we have to acknowledge those racial disparities,” Emanuel said.

Emanuel is a sub-contractor with the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice. He's also involved Aiken Public Safety and his church.

“This is we-ology. We're moving as a tribe,” Emanuel said.

It really does take a village.

Jerome Simmons now realizes his village of violence and crime didn’t feature the best role models. Now he's ready to turn this real-life music video -- off.

Meanwhile, each of the districts we looked into provided statements on our reporting.

In Aiken County Public Schools, we remain steadfast in our commitment to provide all students with a high-quality educational experience. Equity in education lies at the very heart of a high-quality educational experience, and takes many forms – be it equity of funding, facilities or student behavioral expectations. We have made significant efforts to bring racial disparities in our student behavioral consequences more in line with our total student population. Just three of these undertakings include work with Furman University’s Diversity Leaders Initiative; Safe Schools training that better prepares teachers for their classrooms, and the creation of school-based Youth Development Teams to improve classroom culture and management while also enhancing the understanding of behavioral expectations for all students. We are confident that future data released by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) will acknowledge these efforts and show progress is being made.

The Richmond County School System is working to improve the discipline process in order to provide equitable opportunities for all students. Since the introduction of PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports), we have seen a decrease in discipline incidents in schools while also seeing a correlating increase in test scores. 33 schools have implemented PBIS and all schools utilize the PBIS principles. We have also trained teachers and administrators over the summer on restorative practices at five schools with disproportionate discipline issues in order to better address issues. Restorative practices are designed to rebuild and reinforce relationships between students and staff with the goal of improved behavior and academic outcomes. While we know there is still work to be done, we look forward to continuing to provide equitable opportunities for all students while building a world class school system where all students graduate college/career ready.

The Columbia County School District, meanwhile, has not yet provided us with a full statement on our report.

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