December 29 2011
The Washington Post has a fascinating story this morning revealing that African-American students in Washington-area public schools are suspended or expelled two to five times more frequently than white students.
As is often the case with the Post, the reporting is rich but the bias is obvious. It is interesting that, at least in my opinion, the ideas lurking behind the reporting are ones that are ultimately harmful to African-American children.
Here is the lead to the story by reporter Donna St. George:
Across the Washington area, black students are suspended and expelled two to five times as often as white students, creating disparities in discipline that experts say reflect a growing national problem.
But couldn't the “disparities” result more from differences in the conduct of the children than in the way discipline is applied? Ms. St. George seems not have even considered this possibility.
I submit that, if there is a “national problem”—and there is—it is not that school officials are mean to minority kids but that all too many minority kids come from single-parent households. It is more difficult for one put-upon parent (usually the mother) to instill good habits than it is for two parents.
Ms. St. George acknowledges that frequently these children come from single-parent families:
Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns.
But she can’t bring herself to rule out discrimination as the prime motivating factor behind the high proportion of disciplinary actions directed at minority kids:
[E]xperts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in suspensions. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.
Ms. St. George seems to see the problem almost as one of statistics. I am almost tempted to ask her if it could be solved simply by suspending more non-minority students.
But in St. George's view school officials are likely to pick on black students:
In Maryland and Virginia, as in many other places, one of the most common causes of student suspensions are what many call “soft” — or discretionary — infractions: disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language….
While I am thoroughly delighted to know that children can still be suspended for foul language, I must argue that these “discretionary” offenses aren’t really that discretionary.
Disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language are easy to spot and students guilty of such offenses deserve to be punished, regardless of their race. But for Ms. St. George sending a student home for foul language is likely racially-motivated:
In that research, African American students were more likely to be suspended for discretionary offenses and less likely than whites to be suspended for severe violations, such as selling drugs or bringing a gun to school.
What this really says—screams—is that the minority students who are suspended are likely to come from homes that lack discipline.
St. George reports that schools are trying to bring the suspension disparity under control by developing “cultural sensitivities” or relying on committees rather than the decisions of individual teachers in making suspensions.
The cultural sensitivity we really need to develop is one that says every child deserves a stable, two-family household that can prepare him for school and life.
The focus should be on how to promote such families, not on how to bring school suspensions into some sort of statistical racial parity.