Fixing problems in schools that cause black children to face harsher discipline than white students is not an easy challenge to overcome, but local education leaders say building stronger relationships between students and teachers is an essential piece of the puzzle.

When it comes to school discipline, the odds are stacked against black students in Indiana.

They are more likely than their peers to be suspended or expelled from school, no matter whether their school has few black students or many. That can have a ripple effect, dragging down their academic performance and increasing the chance that black children will drop out of school.

A panel discussion examining the issue, hosted by The Mind Trust and the UNCF tonight, drew about 70 attendees, including leaders such as Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Indiana data reveals that black students are suspended or expelled at alarmingly high rates compared to their peers. Although they make up just 12 percent of the children in Indiana schools, about 40 percent of students who are suspended or expelled are black, according to Russell Skiba, director of The Equity Project at Indiana University, which tracks disparities in discipline.

It’s easy to think of suspensions and expulsions as a last resort for students who are dangerous or violent. But in fact, only 5 percent of suspensions and expulsions stem from battery, drug-related or violent incidents.

Many students are punished severely for subjective offenses, such as defiance, said Carole Craig, a veteran educator, member of the NAACP education committee and one of the panelists. In order for Indiana to reduce discipline disparities, schools should only be allowed to suspend students for dangerous behavior, she said.

“It’s the policy that’s allowing this. It’s not the behavior of the students,” she said. “We have to look at how do we view race, what are our unbiased opinions about, what kind of perceptions do we have about black males?”

Harsh discipline can have disastrous ramifications for students, reducing the time they spend in school learning and dramatically increasing the chance that they will drop out of school, according to a research summary from Skiba.

The key to reducing suspensions among black students is strong relationships with teachers, said Wanda Legrand, IPS deputy superintendent for academics. Relationships are the bedrock of alternative discipline programs that are less punitive than suspension, she said.

“Relationships with students will eliminate most of the problems that you see in classrooms,” said Legrand, who is implementing race and equity training for the district.

Ahmed Young, who leads Hogsett’s education team, echoed the importance of getting to know students. When he was teaching, his first priority was showing students that he cared about their lives, Young said.

“As a teacher, I would spend the first almost two or three weeks not touching the standards, not touching the curriculum, not touching a single book, but really getting to know each and every one of my students,” he said. “It laid the foundation to have those difficult conversations to address those really substantive issues that each child comes into the classroom with.”

But many teachers don’t have the time or opportunity to build such deep relationships with all of their students. Schools are short on support staff, like counselors, and they don’t have the resources to provide adequate teacher training, Craig said.

“You really want to take a prep period or lunch period to talk and give students that personal attention, (but) you don’t really have that,” Craig said. “Our teachers are absolutely stretched.”