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Zero-Tolerance: Fueled by Bad Behavior or Racism?

October 24, 2000|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership" (Middle Passage Press, 2000). E-mail: ehutchi344@aol.com

According to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Education, nearly one out of eight black students was suspended from the nation's public schools in 1997-98. By contrast, only one out of 30 white students was suspended. The figures for expulsions are even more appalling. Nearly 1 million students were expelled that year, one-third of them black.

Civil rights groups blamed the gaping disparities on racism and said that they would challenge school officials nationally to find better ways to discipline black students instead of shoving them out of their school doors. Education officials counter that factors other than racism could explain the disparities in suspensions. Though they don't spell out what those factors are, the disturbing implication is that black students are more prone to carry knives and guns, pick more fights, act unruly and engage in illicit conduct than whites at schools.

There is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. In fact, education officials concede that one reason for the racial blip in suspensions is that poor and minority parents are less likely than white, middle-class parents to challenge school officials' decisions to suspend or expel their children.

If school officials grossly overreact to the bad behavior of black students, there are two big reasons. The federal Gun-Free Schools Act, passed in 1994, requires that states order their schools to boot students out for weapons possession in order to qualify for federal funds. (School officials later expanded the list of violations for student expulsion to include fighting and other violent acts.) California's zero-tolerance school laws mandate that a student be expelled for one year for infractions that include drug sales, robbery, assault, weapons possession and fights that cause serious physical injury. The only exception is if the student that caused the injury acted in self-defense.

The horrific stories of students wielding guns and knives on campuses and assaulting and terrorizing other students have deepened public panic that murderous youths are running amok at schools. School officials zealously enforce get-tough policies to prove that they will do whatever it takes to get rid of disruptive students.

But what rankles civil right groups is that get-tough school policies may be badly tainted with racial stereotypes. The danger is that many school officials reflexively view young blacks as violence-prone, menace-to-society thugs. The well-publicized two-year expulsion slapped on black students for fighting at a football game by the mostly white school board in Decatur, Ill., last year raised huge warning flags that some school officials deal more harshly with black students who misbehave than with whites. In those instances zero-tolerance is a repressive tool that victimizes black students.

The aim of a zero-tolerance school policy is to send the stern message to students that violent acts on campus will not be tolerated. But does a rigid zero-tolerance policy effectively keep students and the community out of harm's way? Despite the murderous rampage at Columbine High School, the rash of shootings at other public schools and the steady tales of crime-ridden, failed inner-city schools, campuses are generally safer than they were five years ago. In a report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, school-associated shootings have sharply dropped since 1991, while homicide rates among adults have jumped.

Better and more effective school counseling and mediation programs and greater parental and teacher involvement--not zero-tolerance policies--are the major reasons why school violence has plunged. Zero-tolerance policies that merely dump students into makeshift alternative schools or out onto the streets demoralize students and parents, reinforce the notion among blacks that school officials impose a racial double-standard in punishing blacks and whites and increase disdain among minorities for public education.

School officials should ask themselves whether they use zero-tolerance policies to punish bad behavior or to overly punish black and Latino students because of racial fears. Civil rights groups are right to demand that question.

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