Solving the School Discipline Gap

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A recent study claims Seattle school teachers discipline black students more than their white peers. How about a solution that doesn't involve pulling the "race card?"

ED GORDEN, host: In the good ole days, children were taught not to act up in school, citizenship was as important to learning as was hitting the books. But today, with violence and metal detectors commonplace in far too many schools, the days of the polite student may be long gone. Commentator Joseph C. Phillips says the need for a well-behaved student body is sorely needed. And that journey should begin at home.

JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS reporting: The headline in the Seattle Post Intelligencer caught my eye. Race Gap in School Discipline Persists in Seattle. The article appeared on the heels of a report released by the Children's Defense Fund entitled, "Educational Apartheid in the U.S." Both the CDF report and the article conclude that, "Compared with white students, African Americans were nearly twice as likely to receive short-term suspensions, lasting 10 or fewer days. Long-term suspensions were imposed on black students more than twice the time." The implication of course, is that the gap is due to insensitive teachers and institutional racism. Well, as the father of three school-aged boys, I was naturally concerned. If black students are being unfairly punished for behavior that their white peers are not, I wanna be on guard. However, there's nothing in either report to suggest this is the case. The claims made by the Seattle School Board and the CDF do not address unfair treatment, but disproportionate treatment. The conclusions are based on numbers and not behavior. Of course, one can make the argument that the discipline gap persists due to racism, but it is not bigotry that is responsible for the black student truancy rate, which is also twice that of white students. The data also reveals that boys are two times as likely as girls to suffer suspension. Well, neither the CDF nor the Seattle School Board attempt to make a case of underlying sexism in the administering of discipline. Instead they framed the debate in the language of race and talk of discipline as though kids are being punished for running in the halls, as opposed to behavior that warrants suspension and expulsion. The framework is wrongheaded and so are the solutions that follow. The CDF advocates, "Decisions that suspension and expulsion should be made individually, after careful consideration of their efficacy for school safety and for each child." Well, Ruth McFadden, who oversees District Programs that address student discipline and truancy in Seattle, puts it more candidly, "School Administrators will discipline all students, but take cultural difference into account." What remains unclear is how people who are concerned with fairness and equality, would seek to institutionalize the notion that, there is something cultural that leads black students to misbehave. The soft bigotry of lowered expectations rears its ugly head once again. Children behave differently and the Seattle data reveals a clear correlation between the disciplinary rate and the number of students living in single-parent homes. According to the Seattle School District's figures, there are almost an equal number of black and Asian students enrolled in the Seattle schools. However, 67 percent of black students in the District live in single-parent homes versus 29 percent of Asian students. And yes, black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled. This is the elephant sitting in the room. Now, a two-parent household does not guarantee a child's success. But the evidence continues to mount that, children living with both parents in the home are at an advantage. We can either march forward under the illusion that a discipline gap exists because teachers are a bunch of racists, suspending black children more than white for no other reason than the color of their skin. Or, we can finally realize that a breakdown in the traditional family structure, and an embrace of the destructive social behavior and attitudes that have accompanied it, is playing the devil with our children.

Gordon: Joseph C. Phillip is an actor and a syndicated columnist, living in Los Angeles. This is NPR News.

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