Friday was the first day of alternative school for 14-year-old Dre’Quan Dewitt — just one of the many black students who gets punished far more often than white students.
The Whittemore Park Middle School honor role student was accused of making threats to shoot up his school. But students’ stories were conflicting, there was no concrete proof of his threat, and his criminal charge of disturbing school was dropped. Dewitt denies making the threat.
During the 2015-16 school year, the most recent full year for which data is available, 47 percent of kids who were put into alternative school were black, despite being 20 percent of the student population, according to numbers provided by Horry County Schools.
Black students accounted for 56 percent of expulsions that year, according to district numbers. White students only accounted for 33 percent of expulsions.
The most recent data the district has goes to December of the 2016-17 school year, when black students accounted for 64 percent of expulsions. White students accounted for 31 percent, meaning black students were 6 times more likely to get expelled than white students.
But why the disparity?
Nathaniel Bryan, an education professor at the University of South Carolina, said a lack of black teachers in the classroom, white teachers with biases against black students and zero tolerance policies all help explain the disproportional punishment against black students.
Horry County Schools spokesperson Lisa Bourcier did not comment specifically on the disproportionate number of black students who are punished compared to white students.
She said in an email that “the District expects all students (regardless of race, religion, color, national origin, sex, etc.) to conduct themselves appropriately including, but not limited to, behaving with honesty, integrity, fairness, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and respect for the rights of others.”
In Horry County Schools, black teachers accounted for 5 percent of teachers, according to South Carolina Department of Education data from the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year for which data is available. Black male teachers were less than 1 percent.
The only two South Carolina districts bigger than Horry County — Greenville and Charleston — both employ a larger percentage of black teachers at 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively.
Bryan said that black teachers view bad behavior differently than white teachers, who already hold biases and stereotypes about black students. He said educating future teachers about their own biases is important to reverse the trend.
“We know white children engage in some of the same misbehaviors, but they are not disciplined in the same ways,” Bryan said. “Schools are structured to better support white children.”
Bourcier said the district tries to recruit teachers of color by attending recruitment fairs at historically black colleges and universities.
Between July 2014 and March 2017, the district hired 749 professional staff, including teachers, with 44 of them identifying as African American, she said. The district also hired 507 support staff, including 117 who identified as African American.
How does Horry compare?
According to 2013-14 data from the United States Department of Education (the most recent year for which comparable data was available), Greenville and Charleston school districts punished a smaller percentage of black students than Horry County.
Horry County Schools expelled five times more black students per capita than Greenville, and double the number expelled by Charleston.
Horry expelled more students overall, and black students made up a larger percentage of the total number of expulsions in Greenville and Charleston that year.
“I think school districts can engage in ongoing and continuous professional development to help teachers undo those same biases and stereotypes,” said Bryan. “Have teachers look at data that shows the disproportionate disciplining of students of color and have conversations around that data so they can make improvements.”
Zero tolerance is the strict enforcement of rules against certain behaviors, sometimes regardless of circumstance.
Such policies “turn minor incidents into criminal ones,” said Bryan, who added that most policies were developed in response to school shootings in the 1990s, and are damaging to students of color.
“Black students are disproportionately punished as a result of zero tolerance policies,” he said.
In Dre’Quan Dewitt’s case, an accusation of something he said turned into a criminal charge of disturbing schools.
“That’s a clear example of zero tolerance, to send Dre’Quan to an alternative school out of fear, especially when we have conflicting stories among the students,” said Bryan. “These are the kind of experiences that black boys and students of color must endure, regardless of their innocence. In a case like that, there’s dire consequences attached to these accusations.”
Bourcier said the district has no zero tolerance policies. The district’s policies for making threats to school include punishments ranging from temporary removal from class to expulsion.
“Since they kicked me out I’ve been home,” said Dewitt. “I’ve been sad some nights. I really don’t know what to do.”