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Minority students as targets?

An Education Dept. report only skims the surface of the question of whether there is racial inequity in schools' disciplining of students.

March 10, 2012
  • Minority students are more likely to be disciplined than whites are relative to their overall numbers in public school, and the difference is especially stark for African American students, who make up 18% of the student population but 35% of first-time suspensions.
Minority students are more likely to be disciplined than whites are relative… (Los Angeles Times )

The big announcement from the U.S. Department of Education implied that schools were unfairly disciplining African American students, and that's how it was played in news reports. "Minority students across America face harsher discipline," the agency's press release read, under a headline that called this an "educational inequity."

Indeed, minority students are more likely to be disciplined than whites are relative to their overall numbers in public school, and the difference is especially stark for African American students, who make up 18% of the student population but 35% of first-time suspensions. Many studies over the years have confirmed the same trend, and it's certainly a troubling omen for efforts to raise achievement among minority students.

But is it a result of prejudice among educators? Or does it reflect differences in behavior among students? Or are there more zero-tolerance policies that require suspensions in inner-city schools? Unfortunately, the public is left without an answer to these questions because the Education Department skimmed only the surface of the topic. It looked solely at the numbers and types of disciplinary actions against students relative to their overall population. In order to know whether minority students are treated unfairly, it needed to compare those numbers with the numbers of times students of various races and ethnic groups broke the rules, and whether they were treated differently for the same misbehavior, among other things.

It's entirely possible that bias plays a significant role in discipline. It's been well documented, for example, that police have historically treated African American men more harshly during traffic stops than white men for the same offenses. Studies have found that white teachers are more likely to refer African American students for special education than are black teachers.

An Education Department spokesman noted that many suspensions are the result of zero-tolerance policies, which require automatic suspensions for certain first-time offenses. But in some cases, the spokesman said, those policies are instituted at largely African American schools by African American principals, and the department doesn't mean to imply that any form of prejudice is involved. Except that's what it led the public to believe.

If the real question is how often schools suspend students — which obviously affects black students more than other groups — the answer is simple: far too often. Ordinarily, the public thinks of zero tolerance as invoking consequences for drugs or weapons. But in recent years, it has been applied in alarming numbers to much less serious violations — especially disruptive behavior. The idea is that by removing the troublemaker for a day or more, the school becomes a calmer place where others can achieve.

It makes sense in theory, but subsequent studies have cast doubt on whether it works that way. A 2008 report by a task force of the American Psychological Assn. concluded that suspensions haven't provided any of the benefits educators had expected.

They are definitely bad for most of the suspended students. It never made sense for a student's punishment to be a legal vacation from school. In addition, the loss of classroom time worsens a student's academic problems, which in turn leads to further disciplinary problems.

There are many ways for schools to revamp their disciplinary rules. To start with, zero-tolerance policies should be reserved for the worst behaviors. For lesser violations, there should be an escalating series of disciplinary measures so that first-time offenders aren't treated like serial troublemakers. Ultimately, in-school suspension and detention make more sense than banning a student from campus. They keep students attending school regularly, prevent them from falling behind academically, keep them off possibly dangerous streets and send a message that misbehavior is not a free ticket to a few days off.

The Education Department missed an opportunity with this report. If schools are doing a poor job of disciplining students, the department should be gathering the evidence and leading the charge against backward methods that are harming youngsters rather than helping — especially considering that this has a disproportionate effect on many at-risk students.

And if minority students are being unfairly singled out for punishment, the department neither proved it nor provided much guidance for how to protect them. If a solid study shows that that is the case, then the department should use its full powers to end such practices as a violation of students' civil rights. Whether the penalty is suspension or campus cleanup, if an African American student is likely to receive a harsher penalty than a white student, that's grossly unfair and must be stopped.

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