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Suspensions are the symptom, racism is the cause

When my daughter was a junior in high school, she became captain of her softball team. One morning, while she shared some snacks I had brought her with a couple of teammates, a teacher accused her of selling food. He then confiscated my daughter's bag, violating the school board policy that gives only the principal, assistant principal and school police officer the right to confiscate students' possessions.

When my daughter tapped her teacher's shoulder and asked to retrieve her purse and notebook from the bag, he claimed assault and tried to expel her.

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Fortunately, after meeting with the principal, the situation was resolved. But the experience made me wonder: How many African American girls are getting suspended when they haven't done anything wrong?

When I studied Maryland's statewide suspension data, I found that black males are suspended twice as often as white males. But when I compared black females to white females, it was double, triple, quadruple. And in one particular county, at the elementary school level, one white female student was suspended for every 60 African American girls. That's in elementary school.

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This disparity doesn't just hold true for Maryland. Across the country, black females are suspended six times more often their white peers, compared to black boys who are suspended three times more often than white boys.

These high rates of suspension form the foundation for the school-to-prison pipeline, both for young women and young men of color. When students are suspended or expelled even once, their risk of dropping out of high school more than doubles. Once students, particularly students of color, leave school, they are at a much higher risk of ending up in the criminal justice system.

The school-to-prison pipeline, and how it unfairly affects students of color, has been well documented. But we often fail to overlook the reasons why students of color are suspended at higher rates than their white peers.

Suspensions today rarely have anything to do with the kinds of dangerous and violent behavior that zero-discipline policies were designed to prevent. According to the recently released Building a Grad Nation report, the vast majority of students are suspended for nonviolent crimes like truancy, dress code violations or behavior related issues like disrespect, insubordination or defiance — the same subjective reasons for which my daughter was almost expelled.

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I currently travel across the country consulting on education and school reform policy, and I have learned that teacher expectations are simply lower for children of color. When I ask educators to state their first thought about different groups of students, they consistently describe black and Latino kids as kids with deficits.

Some of their comments have even labeled Latinos as "welfare munchers" and African Americans as "animals." These comments are from educators.

So far, I've collected more than 1,000 responses. While only a few of these comments are as vile as the ones mentioned above, the vast majority are still deficit-based. These lower expectations create smaller windows for student mistakes — behavioral or academic — and lead to higher rates of student suspension.

Most schools and systems don't publicly report their discipline data, which means that communities can't accurately assess the problem, advocate or hold systems or schools accountable. But experience tells me that if excessive suspension is ever going to be reduced, we must view it like the common cold.

Suspension is a symptom, like a sneeze or sore throat. The virus — racism and inequality — is what produces the symptom. And the virus plaguing these students is the same virus that caused the kind of unrest we saw in Baltimore and Ferguson.

I was in Baltimore the day after the unrest broke out. I stood only a few feet from the police, looking into the faces and the eyes of young black men who were thinking of rushing them.

I told one young man, "Even if you get five steps, there's the National Guard behind you and they'll put a 50-caliber bullet through you."

He didn't care. "I want them to hurt as much as I do," he said.

Even when students of color do respond with behavior issues in the classroom or on the streets, we must remember that their behavior is symptomatic of a virus that is systematic. Students are expressing, in perhaps the only way they know how, all the hurt, pain and injustice they have suffered their whole lives.

That's the kind of pain we need to be addressing, not suspending.

Robert Murphy serves on the Council of State Government School Discipline Consensus Project workgroup and continues working with CSG around student discipline issues. He has served as a board member for the National Council on Educating Black Children and was named by Gov. Martin O'Malley to the Juvenile Justice Education Program Coordinating Council. His email is Evolve3470@hotmail.com.

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