Thursday, October 26, 2006

To avoid charges of racism, schools often discipline black and white students differently

Edmund Janko:

Not long ago, when a study from the left-leaning Applied Research Center charged a "deep pattern of institutional racism" in the disciplinary practices of public school districts around the country, it brought back some memories.

More than 25 years ago, when I was dean of boys at a high school in northern Queens, we received a letter from a federal agency pointing out that we had suspended black students far out of proportion to their numbers in our student population. Though it carried no explicit or even implicit threats, the letter was enough to set the alarm bells ringing in all the first-floor administrative offices.

When my supervisor, the assistant principal, showed me the letter, she merely shook her head and looked downcast. She said nothing, but her body language told me that it was probably time to mend our errant ways.

And when I passed the news on to our chief security guard that the feds were on our case, he merely chuckled and said, "They're bad"--meaning our rowdy clientele, which I took as confirmation of what I still believe: that until then, I hadn't recommended suspension for anyone who didn't richly deserve it.

There never was a smoking-gun memo, or a special meeting where the word got out, and I never made a conscious decision to change my approach to punishment, but somehow we knew we had to get our numbers "right"--that is, we needed to suspend fewer minorities or haul more white folks into the dean's office for our ultimate punishment.

What this meant in practice was an unarticulated modification of our disciplinary standards. For example, obscenities directed at a teacher would mean, in cases involving minority students, a rebuke from the dean and a notation on the record or a letter home rather than a suspension. For cases in which white students had committed infractions, it meant zero tolerance. Unofficially, we began to enforce dual systems of justice. Inevitably, where the numbers ruled, some kids would wind up punished more severely than others for the same offense.

The Souls of American Folk


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