Dear Dr. Comer:
I am white and the principal of a middle school that is 70 percent white and 30 percent black.
When another school district in our state was charged with racial discrimination because a disproportionate number of suspended students were black, I reviewed the suspension record in my own school. To my horror, I found that blacks were 50 percent of all the suspensions.
We have well-established criteria for suspension that apply to all students; thus, there are no arbitrary suspensions. I believe that I have been fair in applying these standards. On the other hand, I don't want to blame the problem on the black students or their families.
There has to be another way of understanding the problem. Incidentally, we have a number of outstanding black students in our school and most of our students, black and white, are fine young people.
I would appreciate your viewpoint and recommendations. S. P. Dear S. P.
Aggressive behavior -- physical and verbal -- appears to be the basis for suspension in your school. The causes of such behavior are complex. The cause can be conditions in the school or conditions in the past and present life of a student at home and in the society.
Children of all races from families below the poverty level or who have difficult family experiences are more likely to display excessively aggressive behavior. Black children from all income groups, however, may become appropriately aggressive when school staff members or students display strong anti-black feelings.
In most cases, punishment through suspension is not the best way to decrease aggressive physical or verbal behavior. Schools are more likely to be successful by addressing the cause.
From earliest childhood, parents, neighbors, church members and teachers should help children channel physically aggressive energy into the energy of thinking, learning, work and play. At the same time, these adult caretakers must be careful not to crush appropriately aggressive responses, assertiveness and sticking up for ones self.
A delicate balance must be struck. Children must be taught the appropriate time and place for the display of aggressive behavior and the appropriate levels and ways of being aggressive. Unfortunately, families under the greatest economic and social stress are least able to provide such training.
Because more black families function under serious economic and social stress, more black children are likely to be involved in excessively aggressive behavior. Such children -- whether they are black or white -- are more likely to have weaker academic preparation, which makes them feel vulnerable in competitive situation . . . especially where teachers favor students with the best academic preparation. Again, overt and even subtle negative racial attitudes stimulte aggressive physical and verbal responses toward teachers, other students and property.
Black children -- like the black community -- are less accepting of racist attitudes and behavior today. In fact, there are some blacks who feel that black children should not have their physical aggression curbed at all and should be taught to be aggressive.
I will discuss their arguments in another column. I disagree with their point of view and believe that it reflects some misunderstanding of the meaning of aggression.