Even at the highest levels of government, among people programmed to duck controversy, there is no mincing words on the problem of school discipline: Racial discrimination seriously skews who gets punished, and for what, says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
He was speaking to educators in Maryland, where kicking kids out of school starts as early as kindergarten — or earlier. In that state, 91 preschoolers were suspended or expelled during the 2011-’12 school year, a disproportionate number of them African-American.
The city of Seattle tops that figure with its kindergarten and first-graders, temporarily tossing 104 of its youngest students out of school in 2012-’13.
What could a little kid do that’s serious enough to get suspended, even for a short time?
Ruth McFadden, who manages student discipline for the district, says fighting, hitting or “chronic disruptive conduct” all qualify.
And therein lies the problem. Nationwide, 95 percent of school suspensions are for nonviolent behaviors — like being “disruptive” or “acting disrespectfully” — that hinge on the judgment of an individual teacher or principal, and a growing stack of evidence shows that educators mete out punishments differently, depending on a student’s race.
According to federal civil rights data, African-Americans are more than three times as likely as whites to be suspended or expelled.
“We must penetrate the chronic racial denial that this crisis exists,” said Thelma Jackson, a longtime school board member in Washington, who believes school discipline policies “criminalize the normal, developmental behavior of many children of color.”
Others agree, and they note some serious repercussions: About 2 million high school students are suspended or expelled each year, according to federal estimates. “That is a staggering amount of lost learning time,” Duncan said. “Educationally, and morally, that status quo is simply unacceptable.”
In response, a number of cities have outlawed out-of-school suspension for defiance, and McFadden notes that it is against Washington state law to suspend any child below fifth grade for more than 10 days.
But at Washington’s state education department, the data are raising eyebrows. In Seattle, for example, black youths make up less than 18 percent of the student body while accounting for nearly half of all suspensions and expulsions. The same trend exists statewide: A scant 4.6 percent of Washington students are African-American, but they comprise 12 percent of suspensions and expulsions, according to Tim Stensager, a number-cruncher at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The largest category of offense? Neither fighting nor drug use nor carrying a weapon, but something called “other.”
“This is the beginning of the problem,” Stensager said last week to educators attending a Race and Pedagogy conference in Tacoma. “What is it that they’re really being kicked out for?”