We've seen the video of the white Baltimore teacher who used the N-word to steer a misbehaving black student onto the right track. The teacher was fired, but we should focus on what the student did wrong. The problem of discipline in school classrooms harms the prospects of the very communities of color liberals profess to want to help.
I stopped teaching at an urban high school in Rochester, N.Y., one week after I started. One boy's first words to me were: "Get your a** out of my face." Another student, whom I'll call "Daemon," was swearing in class. I asked him politely to stop, and he snarled at me to stay out of his conversation.
I half-overheard Daemon continuing his conversation with another boy, "Goelem," and a girl (who repeatedly called me "ignorant" and "rude"), talking about "grenades" and doing drive-bys on other students' houses.
I informed the administration of Daemon's Columbine-like remarks, saying that I wanted him out of my class. I also called the homes of Daemon and Goelem.
The administration cautioned me against calling parents too much, saying, "We can't expel students." I had no tools with which to deal with troublemakers, even such extreme behavior as threatening to punch girls in the throat.
I told the students that kids in India, where I was a visiting professor for a summer, would love to have the facilities the students at my school enjoyed. One of the students said that India was irrelevant.
In another class, I tried to point out that education was the route by which they could escape their current circumstances, that people like Frederick Douglass had endured far worse and emerged victorious. Rather than rise to the example of Douglass, one girl said that maybe they had a different learning style than he.
Students angrily erupted if I corrected their grammar, with a student, "Paex," insisting that the students not correct their grammatical mistakes. If I corrected a student's Ebonics, Paex would shout out once more the ungrammatical statement that the other student had made.
When I mentioned the great mathematician Ramanujan and magic squares to the students, one girl shouted, "We don't care!" — a girl who had weeks earlier shown interest and some aptitude for advanced mathematics in the selective, wholesome environment of an optional summer program that I had taught.
One day, a girl who usually entered the classroom with a shout, sparking a class revolt, was absent, and the other students remained quiet. This led me to the solution: excluding a few disruptive students — one or two out of 30 — might help teachers do their jobs with the majority.
My brother, a certified teacher in South Carolina, has taught at least 5,000 students. He found that at the low-performing schools, there are usually three ringleaders and up to five students behaving terribly who settle down if the ringleaders are taken to task; there are zero to one misbehaving students in the middle-of-the road schools, and in the high-performing schools, none.
Is there research to back up this idea that a small minority of disrupters cause the problems? The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute cites suspension rates of 1.98 percent for rural schools and 6.16 percent for city schools.
If we expel children, they would not be left to rot in jail but would have the opportunity to get their GEDs once they see that McDonald's wages can't get them the latest iPhone.
But letting the disruptive students determine the curriculum, forcing teachers to teach to the lowest common denominator, would be the real crime.
Jonathan David Farley (www.latticetheory.net) is a co-founder of Girls Equal Math and has been an advisory board member of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science.