Black students disproportionately disciplined in nation’s schools

Carol Guzy/THE WASHINGTON POST - Alexandria Sutton (left) and Adrienne Ivey attend school at Thomas Jefferson High School. They are juniors and both members of the school’s Black Students Association.

In March, the U.S. Department of Education released a study that found that black students are disproportionately disciplined in the nation’s schools. Taken at face value, the data paint a disturbing portrait of appalling maltreatment of and unfairness toward black students.

But my long experience as a school administrator and my recent work as a substitute teacher in Montgomery County, one of the nation’s best public school systems, tell an even sadder tale: If anything, the statistics do not go far enough in capturing the depth of the discipline problem posed by too many black students.

For the past five months, my assignments in Montgomery County schools have taken me all across the county to about 20 of the district’s 26 high schools, and I have seen an unbalanced number of black students who arrive tired, unprepared, defiant and uncooperative.

According to the study, while black students comprise approximately 18 percent of all public school students nationally, they represent 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of students suspended more than once, and nearly 40 percent of all expulsions. The data were gathered by the department’s Office of Civil Rights. The self-reported data were collected from more than 72,000 public schools during the 2009-2010 school year.  The survey represents about 85 percent of all public schools in America.

As a black man who has been a teacher in several states and an administrator charged with discipline in schools, it causes me immense pain every day to watch so many of our children reject a high-quality education that has historically been denied.

Over the course of my career as an educator my placements have included several vantage points through which I have observed black student behavior. I began in 1988 as a teacher in a poor, largely white Appalachian high school where the black students were bused across town; after that, a racially mixed, middle-class, blue-collar, suburban school with a 40 percent black population; from there, I moved to an upper-middle-class school where the black students were transported from the city’s worst neighborhood; after that, a low-working-class, white high school with only a 5 percent black population; then a highly diverse mixed-income high school with about 35 percent black students; and finally, a predominantly black suburban school.

In every case, the behavior of black students remained constant. Large numbers of them continue to demonstrate a resistant attitude toward learning. They were typically ill prepared academically and seemed to revel in disrupting the instructional flow.   

Even in excellent school systems such as Montgomery County’s, many black students display oppositional behavior toward school and learning in general. This is a significant factor contributing to the achievement gap and the reality that black students, as a sub-group, rank dead last academically among all other students in public schools.

The vast majority of the black students in Montgomery County do not come from the kinds of neighborhoods and desperate economic circumstances where I have worked in the past. Yet here, too, these black students seem to identify closely with some kind of ghetto, thug mentality that has little to do with their reasonably privileged backgrounds.

They appear to be trying to “out Negro” one another. In other words, their behavior is being driven by some weird attempt to demonstrate to others that they are authentically black. To act out in school and reject opportunity somehow epitomizes what being black represents.

The behavior of too many black students that I have witnessed in MCPS and elsewhere can be characterized as distracting, disrespectful, unfocused, off-task, disruptive, profane and disgraceful. This is the case throughout the county. It matters not whether the school is in one of the district’s more affluent areas such as Bethesda and Potomac, or in one of the so-called “down county” schools in Silver Spring or Wheaton.

Indeed, according to the Department of Education report, black students make up 23 percent of the MCPS student population, and account for 52 percent of suspensions. Across the Washington region, the numbers are similar. In Fairfax County blacks are 11 percent of all students and account for 27 percent of the district’s suspensions, and in Prince George’s County, 71 percent of the students are black and they represent 87 percent of suspensions.

Unfortunately, the numbers tell a story that most black people, especially parents, don’t want to hear. Yet, the data alone may prove insufficient in detailing the rudimentary causes of why black students are subject to so much discipline in schools.

These kids routinely and purposefully violate well-established school policies and then develop a belligerent, hostile posture when confronted by faculty. They come to class with food, drinks, headsets, cellphones, iPods, and video games. While these actions, by themselves, are not so egregious as to require discipline, they serve as an escalation point. Therefore, the primary issue becomes the aggressive way in which black kids respond to staff directives.

Often parents offer little help. In many cases, they enable the behavior by becoming hostile and defensive when misbehavior is reported by teachers.

As an assistant principal at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, I witnessed standing-room-only parent nights. Unfortunately, black parents were but a small percentage of those present, even though black kids represented almost one-third of the school’s student body.

In Baltimore County, in a school with a 96 percent black student population, parent-teacher night participation was approximately 3 percent.

As a result of their low participation, most black parents are not aware of the shocking conduct of their kids in school. Worse, no one seems to be brave enough to tell them. Instances of misconduct on the part of black students are far too often overlooked. If not, they are often defended by parents when they are reported.

Therefore, what choice do non-black teachers have? They are understandably reluctant to address these concerns out of a real fear of being branded a racist who dislikes black kids.

The sad truth is that it is easier to teach when black students are not present. Silently, when I see black students walk into a class, I think to myself that it is going to be far more difficult than it should be to control this classroom.

The bottom line is that school systems are not intrinsically biased against black kids. There are some sobering, underlying questions that must be answered by the black community regarding the overall behavior and comportment of our school-aged youth. This problem is more complex than teachers singling out selected students for punishment.

So, while the Department of Education’s study paints a disconcerting image of the magnitude of discipline referrals for black students, it appears to ring true.

Continuing to offer a variation of nimble, acrobatic excuses, while simultaneously whipping up disingenuous civil rights outrage, is no longer acceptable. The issues surrounding black student behavior and discipline cannot, and ought not, be left to schools and teachers to address on their own without the much-needed support from parents.

Schools, by themselves, cannot address every issue created by a culture that condones malevolent behavior in its youth. Schools are designed and tasked with delivering effective pedagogy, not to solve the crushing social problems with which they are currently faced.  

Alfonzo Porter is the author of “More Like Barack, Less Like Tupac: Eradicating the Academic Achievement Gap by Countering Decades of the Hip Hop Hoax.” He is a former teacher and school administrator.

 
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