The discipline gap: Racism or bad behavior?

If black students are disciplined at a higher rate than whites — and they are — Education Secretary Arne Duncan thinks schools are discriminating, writes Heather Mac Donald in Undisciplined in City Journal.  “The Departments of Education and Justice have launched a campaign against disproportionate minority discipline rates,” ignoring the possibility that students’ behavior, not educators’ racism,” is the explanation, she writes.

. . .  the cascade of red tape and lawsuits emanating from Washington will depress student achievement and enrich advocates and attorneys for years to come.

The Department of Education is investigating at least five school systems because of disparate black-white discipline rates, she writes. (Don’t expect an investigation to determine why white students are suspended and expelled at twice the rate of Asian-American students.)

Arne Duncan, of all people, should be aware of inner-city students’ self-discipline problems, having headed the Chicago school system before becoming secretary of education. . . . Between September 2011 and February 2012, 25 times more black Chicago students than white ones were arrested at school, mostly for battery; black students outnumbered whites by four to one. (In response to the inevitable outcry over the arrest data, a Chicago teacher commented: “I feel bad for kids being arrested, . . . but I feel worse seeing a kid get his head smashed on the floor and almost die. Or a teacher being threatened with his life.”)

Nationally,the homicide rate among males between the ages of 14 and 17 is nearly ten times higher for blacks than for whites and Hispanics combined, she writes. Duncan seems to think that suspensions lead to school failure and then to prison, but it’s more likely that the primary mover is poor self-control.

Graph by Alberto Mena

St. Paul, Minnesota fired a “highly regarded principal” for suspending too many black second- and fourth-graders, Mac Donald writes. The system spent $350,000 on “cultural-proficiency” training, where staffers learned to “examine the presence and role of ‘Whiteness,’ ”  and another $2 million “to implement an anti-suspension behavioral-modification program embraced by the Obama administration.”

Aaron Benner, a fifth-grade teacher, protested at a school board meeting, saying disruptive students “affect those who want to learn.”  He blamed student misbehavior on parents and black community leaders, rather than on racism and cultural insensitivity. As a black man, he was heaped with abuse and called a “tie-wearing Uncle Tom.”

“The losers are the kids,” Mac Donald writes.

Protecting well-behaved students’ ability to learn is a school’s highest obligation, and it is destroyed when teachers lose the option of removing chronically disruptive students from class. Nor does keeping those unruly students in class do them any favors. School is the last chance to socialize a student who repeatedly curses his teacher, since his parent is obviously failing at the job. Remove serious consequences for bad behavior, and you are sending a child into the world who has learned precisely the opposite of what he needs to know about life.

Disabled students — especially blacks — are far more likely to be suspended, reports the Civil Rights Project, which doesn’t hazard a guess on whether these students are suffering discrimination or more likely to behave badly.

. . .  17% of African American students nationwide received an out-of-school suspension compared to about 5% of White students.  The comparable rate for Latinos was 7%.  . . . an estimated 13% of all students with disabilities were suspended nationally, approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers.

In urban districts, “the leadership and faculty are also people of color,” Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education, told the New York Times. “So it certainly doesn’t fit into the color-coded boxes of that ‘ism’ that we’ve used historically.” Nonetheless, the department is investigating 19 districts where minority students were disproportionately disciplined.

All the “social pathologies — poverty, single parenthood, addiction, etc. —  impact the black community disproportionately,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. That plays out in school and later: Black adults are 5.8 time as likely to be in prison as whites.

As for the students-with-disabilities data, this almost surely relates to the use (or misuse) of the “emotional/behavioral disability” category. By definition, students so labeled are more likely to act out, defy adults, get into fights, and so forth. If anything, what these data illustrate is that many schools are dumping kids with discipline problems into special education, whether they have a “disability” or not. The outrage isn’t that these kids are getting suspended; it’s that they are ending up in special education in the first place, which is often a road to nowhere.

Federal law has made it difficult to suspend students diagnosed with disabilities, especially if their behavior is related to the disability, which is a given for kids with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

The number one challenge for urban schools is student behavior. Most kids can be taught the behaviors that enable learning. But teachers need the power to remove disruptive, unsocialized students from their classrooms. Instead of out-of-school suspension, which amounts to a vacation, that should be a place with counseling, social services and catch-up tutoring.

Update: At Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle argues that suspension and expulsion are overused for students who are disruptive, but not violent.  “There is no evidence that such discipline . . . improves school cultures or improves safety for children attending school.”  Low-quality teaching and curricula has as much to do with bad behavior as lack of discipline at home, Biddle believes.

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  1. Seems to be an upside to this, no matter how you look at it.

    Aren’t public school teachers one of the groups most solidly in the Democrats pockets?

    They’re the ones who’ll get it in the neck if the Obama admin succeeds at this.

    Poetic justice?

    • And Romney’s campaign will completely ignore this opening, just as it ignored the chance to catch the votes of everyone concerned about illegal immigration when he failed to say he’d reverse Obama’s administrative amnesty.

      It looks like our two corporate-approved candidates have the same essential program.

      • That’s because both Romney and Obama are working for the same masters – and it isn’t us. I wonder what rewards Romney has been promised if he just holds back and ‘lets’ Obama win, ‘taking one for the team’?

  2. As parent to a special needs child, I don’t think it’s just mislabeling or poor parenting leading to disproportionate behavior problems among disabled students. My autistic child can be a total sweetie at times but she has a very low tolerance for frustration and her tantrums can be awful. My neurotypical kids were never like that, even during the “terrible two’s”. I’m not any less strict with my autistic child than I was with my NT kids but she has a much greater number of behavioral issues. It is part of her disability, and one reason why she is in a special ed preschool class with a 1:2 teacher:student ratio rather than in a regular preschool class with a 1:12 or 1:15 ratio.

    I know “mainstreaming” is the politically correct option for special ed kids, but as a parent of both NT and SN children, I think it’s way overused.

    • ‘Mainstreaming’ is total PC insanity. It’s bad for the regular kids, who end up getting dumbed down curriculua and learn very little due to all the distractions; it’s bad for the Special Ed kids, who learn nothing in the regular classroom and become disruptive and even violent when they can’t / won’t understand the content; and it’s bad for the teachers, who are given a physically impossible task to do, and then expected to fudge numbers and data to make it look like they did it anyway (like this crazy policy, grade inflation, dumbed down curricula, etc.) Why would *anyone* these days voluntarily teach in the K-12 education system? It’s a sure way to a fast death – either by stomach ulcers and stress, or, thanks to this new policy idea, likely at the hands of a student using one of their ‘freebies’ (it won’t take them long to realize who has them and when)…

    • Agreed. However, there also seems to be a significant number of fraudulent disability designations. I understand that, in some schools/districts, students are coached (by parents) to behave in ways that will allow such diagnoses, to get SS disability money. I also know of upper-middle-class parents in affluent areas who went to outside practitioners for ADD, anxiety etc. diagnoses, so their HS kids could get extra time on tests etc. Not coincidentally , this happened as soon as the SAT removed the “non-standard-testing-conditions” flag on their score reports. That kind of abuse needs to be stopped, immediately, and real penalties applied. It hurts all kids and trivializes those who really do have disabilities.

  3. Amy in Texas says:

    In my former district, students that are ’emotionally disturbed’ (the district’s wording) are included in Special Ed. They have their own base classroom, also called BA (behavior adjustment) but are in regular classes. They also each have an aide to mind them, and in our case, run interference for them and get them off the hook for often outrageous behavior. Some of the aides were as bad as the students.

    We also were subjected to two staff development consultants who basically called us racists, and tried to frame the behavior of black students as a cultural difference that white people didn’t understand (including getting out of their seats and talking during class).

    Incidentally, white males were WAY overrepresented in the BA program. It was 100% in a school of 10% white students.

    • “We also were subjected to two staff development consultants who basically called us racists, and tried to frame the behavior of black students as a cultural difference that white people didn’t understand (including getting out of their seats and talking during class).”

      This is why the Western world is dying. Not all cultures are equal! Some cultures are successful, and others are failures, for very real reasons. Some cultures inspire liberty, and others inspire tyranny, for very real reasons. (For example, the Aztecs and Nazis had bad cultures! [Most other Native American tribes in the Americas thought of the Aztecs the way that the Allies in WW II thought of the Nazis…]) To deny this truth is to eventually ensure your own destruction.

  4. There’s a field of study about how adverse childhood experiences contribute to health problems — from asthma and diabetes to emotional and behavioral disabilities. A higher number of ACEs correlate with more health problems, physical and emotional/behavioral/mental. Low-income children from violent communities and unstable families tend to have far more ACEs than more privileged children with comfortable lives, and that falls hardest on African-American and Latino children.

    Based on that research, it’s neither racism NOR bad behavior. I don’t know why news about this research hasn’t been shared more widely. Google Dr. Nadine Burke and adverse childhood experience.

    • It is “bad behavior,” but bad behavior of a sort that we have some idea of how it could be prevented. That’s not to say that by the time the child is school age there is much that the school can do to head it off. In the meantime, it cannot be met with an attitude of “oh well, he can’t help it.” That does not work for the child, for the child’s classmates, or for the school. Internvetion is needed, and that intervention will often include isolation from other children. It does not need to be out-of-school suspension, which after all is sometimes exactly what the child wants — bad though the consequences of that might be for the child.

  5. Ponderosa says:

    Why isn’t the Department of Justice rushing to defend boys? Clearly sexism is rampant in our schools.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    One has to wonder what kind of mental gymnastics educators and the Justice Department has to go through to believe that statistical differences in male/female discipline is not a reflection of prejudices, that statistical differences between whites and Asians is not a sign of prejudices, but that black/white differences are a sign of overt racism.

    Considering that education is dominated by women with many of female educators being black women, I find the idea that educators are sexist easier to understand than the claims of racism.

    • Brainwashing removes the need for mental gymnastics. Remember, the people who apply for and are hired in certain policy areas of the federal government come in with their beliefs already set.

      • Brainwashing is exactly what it is, when “if you do the crime, you ought to do the time” – as nonracist / sexist / etc. an idea as you can have – is now considered racist / sexist / etc.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Same subject, different day: Said it before: To demonstrate that discipline is fairly distributed according to behavior and not by race, it will be necessary to break out misbehavior by race. Which is unacceptable and demonstrates racism.

  8. Many teachers and students are going to be physically abused and even killed over this… Just wait until a lot of the bad kids learn that they have ‘freebies’ because they’ve (or ‘their kind’) has already been disciplined enough for one semester / school year… If you’re a teacher, I’d suggest you get out of the K-12 school system while you still can! If you’re a K-12 student, time to buckle down and get graduated ASAP. Every year you stay in school as a student – especially if you’re one of the ‘good kids’ – puts you more in danger. The inmates are about to fininsh completely taking control of the asylum…

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    My daughter just began teaching in a parochial school She’s taking a 2/3 pay cut to get out of a “diverse” school. Presumably, her students will do their assignments and not assault her. Reversing the view, teaching at her old school requires a wage premium of about $40k.
    Her field in the system had about eleven teachers. She heard from HR that six, including her, were leaving.

  10. Within weeks of the opening of a subsidized housing project in our school district, the number of disciplinary issues at my son’s MS jumped upward. It was mostly between/among the new arrivals, both boys and girls, but fights – some with (small) weapons – had been exceedingly rare until that point. The new arrivals were mostly black, the rest of the school was mostly white and Asian (and the blacks and Hispanics were professionals’ kids who shared behavior and aspirations with the rest). The behavioral contrast between the new arrivals and the rest was pretty obvious.