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TheRootDC
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Posted at 02:22 PM ET, 06/29/2012

Black student discipline: Time for a call to action

In a June 13 opinion essay for The RootDC, Alfonzo Porter, a former Alexandria City school administrator, argued that black students were more likely to be suspended and expelled from America’s public schools because they “demonstrate a resistant attitude towards learning” and are “typically ill prepared academically and seemed to revel in disrupting the instructional flow.” He based his observations on personal experience and an Education Department report released in March that found that while black students make up “18 percent of students in America’s schools, they represented 39 percent of the students expelled,”among other findings.

I take umbrage at Porter’s analysis. Black students’ over-representation in school disciplinary proceedings — as well as their disproportionate designation as special education students — should not be an indictment against minority students, but a call to action for educators and the community to better address their individualized socio-educational needs and to ensure that discrimination is not coming into play.

Porter’s negativism towards the “black student” resulted in a flaccid analysis, full of biased stereotypes and sweeping generalities. He inaccurately portrayed black students as a raucous monolith — devoid of individualism. Contrary to Porter’s article, each student, regardless of race, should be perceived and treated as an individual and not educated through the lens of comparative group pathology.

Daniel J. Losen, director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, debunks the misconception perpetuated by Porter that minority children are more likely to be disciplined due to greater instances of misbehavior than their non-black peers, in his report, “Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice,” published in conjunction with the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.

“Research clearly suggests that black students are punished more harshly for the same misbehavior as their non-black peers. That does not prove that this is always the case, just that where researchers have studied the phenomenon, that is what they found,” Losen said. “Plus, as in the Texas study, it is not uncommon to find that white students are breaking the rules more often when it comes to the most serious and most objective misbehavior, like bringing drugs or weapons to school.”

Losen found that suspending students is neither effective at addressing behavioral concerns nor educationally sound — given the lost educational opportunity.  If Porter’s incorrect premise that black students are more likely to misbehave were true, that does not justify responding with the harmful and counterproductive response of suspension, according to Losen’s research.

As a lawyer who has represented youth at school disciplinary hearings and who has appeared at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on their behalf, I have observed that too often the most vulnerable students are dismissed, marginalized and often criminalized. I’ve witnessed intellectually impaired students face expulsion, in lieu of adequate educational services, for infractions that were merely extensions of their disabilities.    

On Father’s Day, the vulnerability of minority youth highlighted in Losen’s report — which Porter failed to acknowledge in his negative analysis of “black student behavior” — inspired thousands of people from diverse backgrounds to silently march down Fifth Avenue in New York in peaceful protest of NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies that largely impact black and Latino youth. Those demonstrators understood something that was not discernible from Porter’s analysis, that stereotyping and racial profiling is wrong and serves no beneficial purpose — whether committed by law enforcement officers or school officials. 

In fact, justice triumphed earlier this week, when a majority of the justices on the New York State Supreme Court sided with demonstrators by ruling that stop-and-frisk procedures are illegal, representing the latest attack on the large-scale frisking of people in low-income, minority communities. In its decision, the court overturned the conviction of a 14-year-old youth on a weapons charge, identified only as Darryl C., reasoning that: “[t]he gradual erosion of this basic liberty can only tatter the constitutional fabric upon which this nation was built . . . The ramifications go far beyond this single case. 

As I join Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, as well as labor organizers, Occupy, the Quakers, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Muslim, Jewish and other groups in decrying racially discriminatory police practices, I take my objection to Porter a step further, to endorse the premise that discriminatory disciplinary policies also have no place in our school systems.  To believe otherwise is to further malign a highly vulnerable group of minority students, thereby endorsing what the ACLU calls the “School-to-Prison pipeline.”

Joy Freeman-Coulbary, a Washingtonian, is a pacifist, lawyer and blogger. You can reach her at freemancoulbary@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @enJOYJFC

By Joy Freeman-Coulbary  |  02:22 PM ET, 06/29/2012

 
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