Difference blamed on stereotypes, culture, poverty and behavior
Jennifer Mrozowski and John Byczkowski, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 22
(Go the link to see statistical tables on discipline problems by race.)
Black students are still more likely than white students to be disciplined at school — three decades after American education documented the disparity.
Three-fourths of 40 Southwest Ohio school districts disciplined African-Americans at higher rates than whites last year, an Enquirer analysis of school discipline data shows. In more than half of schools, blacks were twice as likely to be suspended and sent home for at least one day.
Comparable data for Northern Kentucky schools is not available. However, a state report released in January said that black public school students across Kentucky accounted for 22 percent of disciplinary actions even though they made up just 10 percent of the student population.
“Our response should be colorblind” when kids get into trouble at school, “but for some reason it’s not,” says Alton Frailey, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools. City schools expelled African-American students at twice the rate of whites last year, and gave blacks out-of-school suspensions at triple the rate of whites.
Frailey says school districts must carefully examine reasons for the black/white disparity and then search for ways to confront it.
“Do I believe racism exists in Cincinnati? Of course, it does,” the superintendent says. “But I don’t presume that every case of a black student being expelled is racism.”
The inequality troubles scholars, parents and educators — especially since more than 40,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky last year. Parents and educators say the disparity in discipline contributes to the achievement gap between whites and blacks, which leads to greater percentages of black students dropping out of high school.
Subtle racism may contribute to the discipline disparity. But so does the fact that more black students live in poverty, Greater Cincinnati educators say. They attest that poorer children, regardless of race, are more likely to have troubles at home or in their neighborhoods that translate into problems in school.
Cultural differences play a role, too. Black kids taught at home to stick up for themselves at school may come across as belligerent to white teachers, the experts say.
Whatever the reasons, some students feel targeted.
Teachers and staff “stereotype us — our backgrounds and where we live and the types of the things that go on in our neighborhood — like we’re more likely to steal and fight,” says Sha’Tia Wise, 17, an African-American senior at Withrow International High School.
“It’s like they expect us to do stuff wrong,” she says. “Instead of helping us out, they just go ahead and accuse us of doing something.”
Districts struggle to explain
The disparity has been documented nationally for decades. In 1975, the Children’s Defense Fund reported that the rate of discipline was two to three times higher for black students.
In 1999, 35 percent of black students in grades 7-12 had been suspended or expelled, according to a 2003 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. That compared with 20 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of whites.
Deer Park Schools administrators were so unnerved by their discipline numbers that the superintendent recently pulled her staff together to discuss the data. Black students at Deer Park were suspended out-of-school at three times the rate of whites.
“It’s really puzzling. I’ve not had any sense there was a discrepancy in regard to race,” Superintendent Barbara Hammel says. “The most honest thing I can say is that we’re delving into it. The good thing is that it will make us take a look if there are any discrepancies we weren’t aware of.”
Ashley Bonner, 15, a black student at Deer Park Junior/Senior High School, says she believes her school disciplines students fairly.
“I don’t think it’s a race issue,” she says. “If you have a tendency to cause problems, they are on you all the time.”
Mason school officials also were surprised at disparities there. The district last year had 67 disciplinary actions per 100 black students, compared to 30 disciplines per 100 white students. The disciplines ranged from detention to Saturday school to expulsion. (Individual students could have been disciplined multiple times.)
Mason officials found that the largest category of infractions for both groups was tardiness. And regardless of race, students disciplined for being late to class all averaged about three instances per school year.
“Tardies are not an arbitrary punishment,” spokeswoman Shelly Hausman says. “You’re either in your seat when the bell rings or you’re not.”
Some experts say every reaction by an educator can be subjective, simply because teachers choose whether to discipline a student for an infraction or to let the student slide.
“One of the toughest things as an administrator is to be consistent in discipline application, because almost every situation is different,” says Ken Baker, principal of Wyoming High School.
A difference in culture
Jackie Clayborn, president of Concerned African American Parents of Fairfield/Minority Parents Are Concerned, says her son and at least four other black students were kicked out of Fairfield’s Homecoming football game in October. When Clayborn and other parents asked why, they were told the students were loud and it appeared as though they were going to start trouble, she says.
Meanwhile, dozens of noisy white students who gathered by the concession stands weren’t kicked out, she says. “They traumatized our kids,” she says.
Clayborn says she and other parents called the local NAACP, and school officials later apologized to at least three of the black children.
Fairfield School District officials won’t comment on individual cases. But Superintendent Robert Farrell says he regularly asks his administrators to assess whether race ever enters into school discipline.
“They don’t believe they are differentially disciplining African-American or Mexican-American students,” Farrell says. He says Fairfield last year instituted a diversity action plan to help teachers communicate better with students of all races and family incomes.
Cultural differences between school staff and students compound the problem, experts say. When street-savvy kids from tough neighborhoods engage with middle-class teachers who rule by the book, conflict can result.
“It has to do with a certain alienation that a lot of young people feel,” says Elijah Anderson, author of Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. Surrounded by poverty and violence, some children become angry, distrustful and lacking in hope — hardly the makings of successful school years, he says.
Princess Dobbs, 14, an African-American freshman at Dater High School, says parents play a role in student behavior.
“Black students don’t like to take a lot of stuff,” she says. “Most black parents say, ‘Stand up for yourself and don’t let people put you down.’ White parents say to turn the other cheek and walk away.”
Rochelle Morton, former vice president of education and youth development at the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, says part of the problem in Cincinnati public schools is that 64 percent of teachers are white, while 71 percent of students are black.
“A lot of teachers are afraid of black youth,” says Morton, who taught for 20 years in public schools. “That leads to putting them out of class and sending them to the office. A lot of it has to do with not understanding the culture.”
Edith Thrower, executive committee member of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, says stereotypes influence discipline.
“Teachers here have a low tolerance for any sort of goofy behavior,” Thrower says. “Behavior that could be perceived as childish is being perceived as dangerous.”
For example, if a white teacher sees two white students fighting, she might perceive it as roughhousing, says Dan Losen, legal and policy research associate at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. But if that same teacher sees two black students fighting, she might view it as assault, he says.
“I’m not talking about bigots running the classroom,” Losen says. “I’m talking about unconscious kinds of racial bias where there are stereotypes about blacks. They affect decisions that teachers make.”
Alan Coleman, a retired African-American teacher who taught for 29 years in Cincinnati Public Schools, says white teachers are tougher on black students, in part, because they’re afraid of them.
But Coleman, who says he was assaulted by a black student in 1998, also believes black students are disciplined more often because they are less respectful.
“In a lot of cases, black students are mouthy,” Coleman says. “They are told at home to stand up for themselves regardless of the situation. If that means not seeing things the way the classroom teacher sees it, they feel they have some carte blanche from home to go ahead and state their feelings without regard for the consequences.”
Debunking the poverty myth
Losen, at Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, says studies show there’s little disparity between discipline rates of white and black students for serious offenses, such as gun possession and drugs.
“The racial disparities grow significantly when you’re looking at minor offenses like insubordination, truancy and dress code violations,” he says.
For offenses judged subjectively, black students are disciplined at higher rates, he says.
Sue Taylor, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, says she’s not happy with the discipline disparity but doesn’t believe it’s because teachers or staff members are racist.
“Maybe we need to bring in some experts in the field of discipline and race,” she says. “Parents, teachers, administrators, the community and the students need to begin figuring out how we can together improve these statistics.”