“The Teacher for Those Kids”
Having spent my career as a teacher in urban schools with large majorities of black and brown students, I’ve witnessed the school-to-prison pipeline at work too many times to deny it. Although I’ve most certainly seen instances of student conduct worthy of heavy sanctions, perhaps even judicial action, in most situations this simply wasn’t the case.
I’ve taught my share of students who would typically be categorized as “challenging.” Despite this, students had few-to-no behavior problems in my classes. I’d describe my classroom management style as strong but empathetic, grounded in relationship building. I took seriously the task of understanding the world my students came from and responding to that reality as an instructor.
At times, this ability to connect with students has been equal parts blessing and curse. I have frequently been thrust into the designated role of “the teacher for those kids.” Whenever some of my colleagues felt they had reached their tolerance level with their students’ behavior, it was common for those students to show up at my door with a hall pass explaining that they had been “bounced” by their teacher. When I asked what got them removed, I typically heard trivial reasons along the lines of, “I had my head down,” “I wasn’t participating,” or even “I didn’t have a pencil.” I’d twist my face in confusion trying to comprehend the reasoning, but eventually I’d open the door and let them in for the duration of the class period so they wouldn’t get tied up with unnecessary disciplinary action.
What I couldn’t fathom was why these alleged infractions were so severe that they warranted kicking students out of class. The kids were engaging in typical off-task high school behavior—but for whatever reason, it was perceived differently and handled more severely. This scenario mirrors the experience of many other educators in urban settings.
Data Confirm the Story
The data on discipline tell a story that bears an uncanny resemblance to the reality described by Ta-Nehisi Coates and to my experience as an urban educator. Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students are more likely to experience exclusionary discipline than their white counterparts are. In other words, students of color get disproportionately punished and suspended.
The Civil Rights Data Collection found that in the 2013–2014 school year, black K–12 students were 3.8 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white students were. Among all K–12 students, 6 percent received one or more out-of-school suspensions, but the percentage differed by race and gender: 18 percent for black boys, 10 percent for black girls, 5 percent for white boys, and 2 percent for white girls. The disparities started even before kindergarten: Black children represented 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but 47 percent of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions (U.S Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2016).
News headlines and videos posted online have reinforced the story told by the statistics. A black high school student in South Carolina is thrown from her desk by a school resource officer for refusing to put away her phone (Aartun & Yan, 2015); a 12-year-old Latina girl in Texas is body-slammed and nearly knocked unconscious by police following a verbal altercation with another student (Bever, 2016); a black middle-school boy in Virginia is arrested for allegedly “stealing” a free carton of milk (Wise, 2016). These stories have helped bring the issue to the forefront, justifiably arousing the interest of the general public in how students of color experience discipline.
This problem isn’t new, however. Since the early 1970s—coinciding with the advent of widespread desegregation efforts—the racial gap in suspensions has been trending upward. This trend has been caused in part by the adoption of zero tolerance initiatives that demand heavy-handed approaches to the slightest disciplinary infractions. Zero tolerance hasn’t proven effective as a preventative measure; instead, it has contributed to increased truancy, dropout rates, and encounters with law enforcement (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Skiba, 2000).
Common logic assumes that if students of color are disproportionately represented in the discipline data, it must be because they commit the lion’s share of offenses. I’ve been privy to many conversations in education circles where assertions are made about which kids are causing problems at the school. There’s a prevailing belief that students of color are disciplined more because of cultural deficiencies that exist at home—deficiencies that apparently don’t exist in white households. As is the case with many assumptions, this is false.
Fortunately, many researchers, such as Russell Skiba, Daniel Losen, and Jamilia Blake, have applied an empirical analysis to the data. In Closing the School Discipline Gap (Losen, 2014), these researchers and others provide a more nuanced look at the discipline disparity phenomenon, bringing a few things to light. For example, various studies have found that students of color are more likely to be reprimanded for subjective offenses not specified by the school (insubordination, disrespect, excessive noise, and so on) on the basis of a judgment call of a teacher or administrator. In contrast, white students’ punishments are more likely to be for objective offenses for which the school requires a categorical sanction (drugs, weapons, obscene language, and so on). Students of color—black students in particular—are more likely than white students to be referred to the office or suspended, even when the misbehaviors are similar. This is not just disproportionate representation; it is differential treatment by the system.
Below is an excerpt from The Root of Discipline Disparities by James E. Ford, Program Director at the Public School Forum