Sunday, October 14, 2007

Teacher Watch: Student Race and Discipline

So much for desegregation.

At the end of September, the Chicago Tribune published an investigative report stating that, on average, black students in the U.S. are suspended at three times the rate of white students. According to analysis of senior correspondent Howard Witt, who mined through U.S. Department of Education data collected in 2004-05, there's a dramatic disparity between rates of suspension and expulsion for blacks and their total numbers of enrollment.

The study examines suspensions and expulsions only, with no distinction made for preliminary stages of intervention, such as referrals, parent conferences, or detentions (school site data which is much more difficult to get). In addition, there is no evidence yet regarding the nature of infractions by students of all races, crucial information for evaluating whether suspensions and expulsions were merited. Are we talking about fights? carrying weapons? chewing gum? selling drugs? carrying an iPod? cheating? eating Doritos in class?

Witt reports that the disparity of consequences is more extreme with African American students than with other minority groups, such as Hispanics (apparently disciplined in proportion to their overall numbers) or Asians (disciplined at lower rates). Idaho, perhaps not surprisingly, is cited as the only state where no such discrepancy exists.

In a conversation on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Witt alludes to a backlash of defensiveness from teachers, who feel targeted by charges of racism and are eager to "explain away" the disparity. Interestingly, the Tribune report underscores the fact that 83 percent of teachers are white, but Witt and those he interviews notably ignore the equally intriguing and complicating factor that now nearly 80 percent of teachers are also female.

Witt stresses the impact of discipline unfairness on black students, implying (though never stating) that perhaps a majority of these students received suspensions or expulsions they did not deserve. However, the report does little to scrutinize how white privilege--administrative fear of connected, affluent, and/or litigious white parents whose children "can never do any wrong"--may have exaggerated the disparity in recent years. In other words: How many white students did not receive penalties they might certainly have earned?

This report on student discipline, like most others, also fails to interrogate the complex attitudes directed towards women in positions of authority. Perhaps school institutions, like the larger milieu, tolerate white male disrespect of white female teachers more indulgently (consider the recent Carl's Jr. ad, which attempted to sell burgers by valorizing white male sexual aggression towards a "hot" female teacher). Perhaps white female teachers themselves learn to have higher thresholds of tolerance for misbehavior in white males. (Not a good thing, by the way.)

It's unfortunately not unthinkable that school officials would be more righteous in policing perceived aggression directed by black students at white female teachers, and teachers therefore may learn to be more confident about soliciting backup from administration when dealing with black males.

There's another angle here as well. Because the Tribune report only documents statistics of suspension and expulsion, we have no way of comparing rates of lower-level interventions that sometimes prevent or delay escalation: student and/or parent conferences, referrals, detention. While white teachers may initially bend over backwards to engage this process with white students and their parents, some may indulge "white guilt" about facing black students honestly and frankly at early stages of trouble, actively involving parents in discussions about behavior. One logical result would be that no intervention takes place with black students until something really drastic happens--going from zero to sixty in ten seconds on the discipline meter--giving a reasonable appearance of unfair haste. Another, more ironic result could be that white students gain some immunity from regular forays into the principal's office ("we're working with him; let's not suspend him yet...")

Reversing this trend of apparent unfairness requires more than a patronizing acknowledgment that racism still exists in America. (Duh...) It also requires that we ask whether white students are really "behaving better" by avoiding suspensions and/or expulsions, or whether schools are more afraid of following through when their detentions and referrals stack up. That means scrutinizing invisible privilege, not simply visible punishment.

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