[See original submission with hyperlinks included below]
Reforming School Discipline Policies Must Recognize Racial Inequity
A recent Post and Courier editorial argues: “[school] is…not a place where children should be labeled criminals on a regular basis. And that’s what seems to have been happening in Charleston County schools.”
Just as Richland 2 (Columbia) addressed in 2014, Charleston is now committed to reforming discipline policies in schools that have resulted in significant imbalances in how students are treated, worst of which is that often those practices criminalize students of color disproportionately.
Education reform has been prominent in South Carolina and across the U.S. since the late 1970s and early 1980s, notably with the accountability movement based on academic standards and high-stakes testing. Along with a “get-tough” attitude about academics—such as instituting exit exams—public schools have also increasingly embraced “get-tough” approaches to student behavior—“no excuses” philosophies and zero tolerance policies, for example.
Over the past thirty or so years, however, doubling down again and again on accountability as well as discipline has not created the outcomes promised, but has resulted in many unintended negative consequences.
Exit exams as gatekeepers in school and student accountability as well as popular policies such as grade retention based on test scores have proven to be extremely harmful, especially for vulnerable populations of students (poor, black/brown, and special needs students and English language learners).
While Charleston continues to struggle with education reform targeting academics, the city has also been the epicenter of the larger national challenge to recognize concerns about policing and racial tensions—with the shooting of Walter Scott and the heinous massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
To reform school discipline, we must admit, is to confront a subset of the wider race problem with mass incarceration and police shootings. If our public schools are to be change agents for our society, they must be unlike the culture and communities they serve.
Charleston, then, is making a wise and important decision to reform discipline policies in the district, but additionally, this move requires that political leaders and the public are well educated about the realities of racial inequities in school discipline.
Those lessons must include the following:
- 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 [Civil Rights Data Collection] sample, but 35% of students suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once, and 39% of students expelled.”
- Racial inequities in school discipline begin in prekindergarten, and have lingering negative consequences for students, including contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and higher drop-out rates.
- Research also shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. In fact, Kenrya Rankin Naasel reports: “When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.”
- Black children are viewed as being much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”
- Police in the hallways of schools has proven to be more likely to criminalize students than to create safer learning environments.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has forced the U.S. to confront some hard truths about lingering racial inequity, and addressing discipline policies in Charleston along with continuing to reform academic opportunities for students is yet another set of hard racial truths for us to examine and overcome.
Charleston educational leaders should be commended for this needed move, but the way forward has to be informed by the available research and then grounded in a firm commitment to create the sorts of equitable and rich school experiences that South Carolina has for too long neglected to provide for poor and black/brown students.
In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin offers a powerful guiding principle for all education reform: “It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”
Our “get-tough” approaches to academics and discipline are damaging our students, and we must find better ways to serve all our students.
UPDATE: And then I receive a racist (incoherent) email as a response: