Monday, November 21, 2005

How Bad Are Our Kids?

Couldn't ignore this compelling piece floating through titled "The Color of Public School Discipline" by Starla Vans Cherin of the Westside Gazette:

Are we bad or are we just Black? African- American students in Broward County are three times more likely to be disciplined with out-of-school suspensions than white students. In elementary school, Black students comprise 30 percent of the population but account for 80 percent of out-of-school suspensions. The overwhelming numbers, not just in Broward but also in the state, paint a bleak picture for students that act out. Zero tolerance policies make it easier for administrators to wash their hands of problem students and turn them over into the justice system. Five to 10 day suspensions add up to failing a school term, being retained a grade, dropping out of school and going to jail. The NAACP, the Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. are holding public hearings on school discipline throughout the nation. The Advancement Project’s report, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, documented school discipline in three sites: Denver, Chicago and Palm Beach County, Fla. It demonstrates that schools are “shifting disciplinary issues from the principal’s office to police stations and courtrooms.”

Certainly, using Broward County as a sample, there is need to seriously re-examine the role of discipline and punishment in public school systems. Behavioral trends suggest a rampant problem. But, The Advancement Project's "Education on Lockdown" report suggests something much more troubling than fledgling school districts besieged by bad apple kids - it shows that public schools have no sense of creativity or innovation in addressing this problem:

The colloborative report further investigates the nationwide trend towards using zero tolerance polices in schools as a "take no prisoners" approach to dealing with the most trivial acts of student misconduct. The report also examines how students of color are disproportionately affected by these policies. Three school systems, Chicago Public Schools, Denver Public Schools, and Palm Beach County Public Schools, are profiled as an example of how the national trends are being enacted at local levels.

Could it be race? As the lone or primary explanation, perhaps not. There's a confluence of factors, from

1) Race - because it's easier to incarcerate African American and Latino students who have few resources due to their socio-economic background


2) Class - because, regardless of race, if you live in a city, county, suburb or rural enclave with a low tax base and access to few resources, you have few options as a public school student


3) Bad Management - let's face it: there are a lot of good teachers and concerned administrators out there, but there are, unfortunately, too many who may not care for a variety of reasons. Hence, the reason for such simplistic approaches. Not to mention a budgetary environment more focused on Homeland Security, military R&D and lining the pockets of state/local bureaucratic cronies than on putting money to good use and preventing the problems that created this situation in the first place.

Instead, the response of school districts faced with disciplinary issues suggests a society content with teaching kids in prison-like environments. Have we made a case for "school choice"? We think not. This is not a new issue and should be addressed within the context of the best approach for all students rather than a select few who happen to get a voucher.

That all said, there is a larger social dilemma that Black families must face in relation to the performance and disciplinary standards of their children in public schools. From dress and appearance to courtesy, civility and respect; from good etiquette to established moral standards differentiating what you can and cannot do - it's become obvious that an "old school" approach is desired. There is a need for greater focus on what exactly is happening when African American children are not in school, leading to certain behavior when they arrive, considering the distressing level of evidence before us. Basic lessons previous generations learned and applied (with great success) should be relayed in a most urgent manner to the current generation. For the record, this isn't just a "Black" problem, either.

Let's not front on this. We shouldn't avoid that conversation for fear of White reaction to aired laundry. Juvenile incarceration may be a bit too punitive and unnecessary, we can all agree. But, we can indeed impose a better sense of self and community through firm and uncompromising standards.