Merlene Davis: Finding ways to reduce school suspensions is up to all of us

I am just as guilty as other black parents.

When my last child graduated from Bryan Station High School, the joyous urge to dance naked in Rupp Arena during the ceremony was almost uncontrollable.

It would be the last time I would have to doggedly ask about homework, about grades, about attitudes or anything else that had consumed about 26 years of my parenting life. I would no longer dread seeing the school number on my caller ID.

I didn't have to be concerned with the public school system any more. I was free.

I was also very wrong.

Even though my children have graduated, other black children have not. By avoiding the school system, I had turned my back on them.

I ask their forgiveness.

My change of heart came when I read the "Third Annual Equity Scorecard," prepared by the Equity Council of the Fayette County Board of Education.

The only two areas in which black and Hispanic children rise to the top are suspensions and dropout rates. That is a serious problem especially when we consider the educational achievement gap that continues to widen.

You can't close the gap if a child is not in school because he or she has been suspended sion or dropped out.

Let's look at this in another way.

Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., as he walked home from a store, had been suspended from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools three times.

A lot of news outlets saw those suspensions as sort of a justification for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch man, to suspect Martin of criminal intent, follow and then kill Martin during a scuffle.

But Martin's suspensions were for tardiness and missed days; for a baggie that contained marijuana residue; and for writing graffiti on a locker with friends.

His parents decided he needed to spend that last 10-day suspension under supervision. He was sent to stay with his father in Sanford, away from friends. To be safe.

There are more than 40,000 students in Fayette County public schools. Almost 23 percent are black. According to the scorecard, 15 percent of those black students were suspended during the 2011-2012 school year.

Only 4.2 percent of the white kids were suspended during the same time period.

Those numbers aren't out of whack nationally. Lexington isn't suspending black kids at a greater rate than anywhere else in this country. And that is the problem.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, black kids, especially boys, are punished harsher and in greater numbers than their fellow students. There is a perception that the behavior of black students is more dangerous to their fellow students and to teachers than white students who may behave in similar manner.

Isn't that the same type of profiling that Zimmerman did? Those perceptions are both inside and outside our schools.

Of Martin's transgressions, I see only the marijuana residue as reason for suspension. Why send a kid home for not coming to school? If he is writing graffiti, make him clean it up, repaint the locker and then work out some kind of after-school community service.

Fortunately, Fayette County is addressing those problems, finding ways to get a child's attention through mediation, diversion and counseling rather than sending the child home. Those ways haven't made a significant mark, yet, in decreasing suspensions, but I've got faith.

Now here is why I am not the only person who should be apologizing to black kids.

If we have time to protest the senseless killing of an innocent black boy, we should have time to attend school board meetings and demand better ways of disciplining children than suspensions.

And, if Martin was a sacrifice to the prevalent profiling of black boys, then we should be making every effort to ensure that same profiling isn't taking place in our schools.

I'm not seeing the same sense of outrage for injustices occurring prior to a bullet being fired as I do after.

What happened to the volunteers who used to walk the hallways of our schools? Does anyone show up for site-based council meetings anymore? What about the PTA?

The start of another school year is only 20 days away. As we gather pencils, book bags, and new tennis shoes, let's also set aside a few days when we can play a more significant role in the lives of black students.

Martin was on suspension when he was killed. While others are working to reduce the number of Zimmermans, some of us can try to reduce the number of Martins he confronts.

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