Thomas: Race matters in school discipline and incarceration | Opinion Columns | The State
An old joke tells of a police officer confronting a man crawling on his hands and knees beneath a streetlight one night. The man explains he is looking for his lost keys. When the officer asks if the man is sure he dropped the keys where he is crawling, the man replies, “No, but the light is better here.”
This joke offers something that is deadly serious about both school discipline and the U.S. judicial and incarceration systems: Males, specifically black males, suffer the brunt of punishment in schools and life because they are disproportionately targeted.
Richland 2’s task force examining inequity of discipline and expulsion for black males reflects a pattern that exists nation-wide. In 2012 the Office of Civil Rights released disturbing data about racial imbalances in school suspensions and expulsions: “African-American students represent 18% of students in the CRDC sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”
Expulsion and suspension begin as early as pre-kindergarten, also disproportionately affecting males and black students. Along with grade retention, discipline policies strongly predict drop-out rates as well as incarceration in adulthood.
Often called the school-to-prison pipeline, the relationship between school discipline and the judicial system demands attention, such as the task force by Richland 2.
But the public response to this data often includes two misleading claims. First, many directly embrace suspension and expulsion as part of a larger faith in a “do the crime and do the time” mentality. Second, some immediately assume raising concerns about race-based discipline inequity is a call to let students do whatever they want in school.
In order to understand the race problem in school discipline and then how to address those inequities in ways that benefit everyone, let’s consider the current mass incarceration situation in the U.S.
White males outnumber black males 6 to 1 in the U.S., but black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in our prisons.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has labeled this the New Jim Crow. In her examination of the rise of mass incarceration begun during the Reagan administration, Alexander admits that she began her project rejecting the claim that the judicial system is racially biased against blacks.
However, she discovered ample evidence for race playing a key role in who is arrested and imprisoned as well as what punishments people receive. Two examples are worth highlighting.
First, The Fair Sentencing Act is the result of recognizing that penalties for powder cocaine and crack cocaine created significant disparities in arrests and sentencing along racial lines. And while whites and blacks use marijuana at equal rates, blacks suffer higher rates of arrest and sentencing as well as harsher penalties.
Alexander, in fact, details that whites and blacks experience much different routes in the judicial system after being arrested for similar crimes, experiences represented by the drug war noted above.
Next, I want to return to the opening joke because Alexander also shows that police tend to target blacks more often than whites for arrests.
Her most powerful example is that while the police commonly sweep minority and high-poverty neighborhoods for illegal recreational drugs, the police almost never conduct similar sweeps through college campus dorms—where recreational drug use is also likely.
The light, then, being shined results in arrests, but if that light were aimed somewhere else, who is arrested would also change.
The conditions of mass incarceration confronted by Alexander are now being recognized in the disciplinary policies, such as zero tolerance, and outcomes in public schools, where black males are disproportionately suffer the negative consequences that last into adulthood, even though we have no evidence blacks exhibit worse behavior.
Just as research on grade retention and corporal punishment suggest more effective alternatives to both—alternative that do not simply allow failure or harmful behavior—Walter S. Gilliam, psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine, suggests schools treat extreme behavior instead of using punishment, address teacher stress and time spent with children exhibiting extreme behavior, lower student-teacher ratios, maintain better records of disciplinary actions toward children, and implement wrap-around services that address childhood behavior in the home as well as school.
Gender and race inequity exists in school discipline policies; that fact is not an avenue to ignoring bad behavior, but the first step toward seeking ways in which all students succeed in school and then in life.