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
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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