School Board President reacts to Discipline Report that shows potential racial bias

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - For the first time, the President of the Huntsville City School Board is responding to a Discipline Report, first reported by WHNT News 19's Investigative Team. 

The report shows that district wide during the 2015-2016 school year, African-American students were given discipline referrals three times more often than white students, and were suspended six times more often than white students.

School Board President Elisa Ferrell said she's seen the report and said the solution won't be simple.

"Children can sometimes act out when there's change," said Ferrell.

Board President Ferrell says the 2015-2016 school year was one of transition.  'We rezoned that year.  Some children don't react to change well.  Some do and some don't," she said.

Many students were reassigned schools to help comply with the federal desegregation consent agreement, put into place in 2015.  The hope was to reduce the number of discipline concerns among black students but the recently discovered discipline report shows the opposite happened.

Blossomwood Elementary in particular saw African-Americans disciplined eight times the amount white students were given referrals.  Ferrell says this is not a unique problem.

"That is happening all over the country and it's a situation we're trying to work out," said Ferrell.

She said new Behavioral Learning Guidelines were developed by a panel of students and parents, and implemented at the beginning of this school year.  They believe it will help some of those numbers, but admitted the district has an uphill battle.

It might be more difficult to fix it right now with a 12th grader, so we're starting in preschool and kindergarten and working up every grade but it is a challenge," she said.

Interim Superintendent Tom Drake told the school board his communications team is currently working to add the court report to the district's website, despite being submitted to Judge Haikala a month ago.  Ferrell says the board never discussed the report.

'It's not for the board, it's for the DOJ and for the judge," said Ferrell.

Alternatively, she said the school board receives updates about the desegregation efforts every two months.  We asked her what these numbers mean for ending the federal desegregation order.

"We're trying to help the students, and not necessarily look at numbers," Elisa said.  When we asked how the district should measure success, Elisa replied, "By how many students are graduating and going into the military, community college, university."

When the consent order was first announced, it was called the beginning of the end. But as the 2015-2016 numbers show us, the end, may not be anywhere in sight.

"We don't discipline people because of their race, we discipline them because of their behavior," said Ferrell.

All of this coming in the midst of a very heated school board meeting.  Newly elected school board member Michelle Watkins said, "Right now our board is divided, and we need to learn how to get along."

Just before that, Watkins and Board President Elisa Ferrell raised their voices at one another and called each other disrespectful.

There seemed to be a very clear divide between some of the existing board members, and the two new ones, Michelle Watkins and Pam Hill.