The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zero-tolerance policies are destroying the lives of black children


President Obama wants to limit the number of students expelled every year from high schools. He believes the rates of suspensions and expulsions are racially biased, arbitrary and ineffective. “Although African-American students represent 15 percent of students in the CRDC, they make up 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once, and 36 percent of students expelled,” writes the Education Department. “Further, over 50 percent of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.” So the administration sent to educational leaders a Dear Colleague guidance letter on civil rights and discipline. To close the racial gap, he said, go easy with the zero-tolerance policies. Predictably, the ed-reform types, rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, see this is as a disastrous stripping of school autonomy.

The guidance “would certainly compromise the operation of schools,” according to Richard Epstein, professor of law at New York University. Some critics argue that schools need to sweat the small things — uniform violations, smoking, tardiness and singing — if they want to create a positive school culture in which students and teachers are focused on learning. For the sake of those who are focused on learning, those who aren’t ready must be forced to leave. Epstein adds that schools with zero-tolerance policies offer “no taint of any purported civil-rights violation.” And he’s right when he says,  “Disproportionate rates should not be regarded as unjustified merely because they reflect higher rates of improper behavior by minority students than by white students.” Expulsions are easily justified and aren’t inherently racist. More importantly, they can be a very effective way to increase learning outcomes.

In fact, the complainers are right: Obama’s plan has a major flaw. But curbing the option to expel students is not it. The trouble is his rationale. The real reason to stop expulsions is that, in the noble cause of closing the black-white achievement gap, schools are insidiously giving up on black children by expelling those who are considered not ready to learn. While zero-tolerance expulsions myopically help the school and the majority of students in it, they destroy the student — and, ultimately, the community, too.

Zero-tolerance policies have many allies. Parents are often the most ardent supporters. (If a kid injured your son or daughter, you’d want expulsion, too.) Moreover, teachers and principals will tell you that ridding the school of disruptive behaviors accelerates achievement for the overwhelming majority of its students. Educational leaders embrace no-tolerance policies on the ground that they provide the greatest good for the greatest number.

The trouble is that when students are out of school, they’re still learning — just not the things society wants them to. Many districts don’t require that suspended and expelled students receive homework support or tutoring, so they fall further behind their peers. In addition, expelled students abandon activities that lead to college and take up activities that lead to prison. Expulsion also correlates with court involvement. (A modest proposal: Whenever a young person sees a judge, he or she should be accompanied by the principal of the last school attended.) This is why a suspension for infractions such as chewing gum, not wearing a uniform correctly or even fighting hurts the larger goal of meeting the child’s needs.

And what happens to expelled children can have large consequences on the entire community. Schools are contributing to the explosion of young adults who are not working or in school in major cities. New Orleans, where I worked, provides an example of a city already in a bad way. According to “Building an Inclusive, High-Skill Workforce for New Orleans’ Next Economy,” a report from the Greater New Orleans Data Center, 14,000 youths ages 16 to 24 in the New Orleans metro are neither enrolled in school nor employed. This is a terrible enough social trend that we should fight in every way we can to reverse, rather than letting schools exacerbate it.

Here’s some perspective for that number: 14,000 exceeds the number of registered students at Tulane or the University of New Orleans. It’s a greater number than the combined enrollments of Loyola, Dillard and Xavier universities. Fourteen thousand youths is about one-third the number of students who attend public schools in Orleans Parish. The number is about 4,000 seats shy of a full house at a Pelicans game. If a company hired 14,000 youths, it would be the largest employer in the city. Although expulsion isn’t the only cause of these numbers, it certainly doesn’t help. At some point, institutions must do the very hard work of educating children with extraordinary challenges.

The goal has to be to keep children in school. Kudos to the Recovery School District of New Orleans for being proactive in creating a uniform expulsion policy that is in line with Obama’s goal but for also recognizing the community need for curbing expulsions.

That doesn’t mean Obama’s conceit is flawless. It is important for schools to be able to credibly threaten reprisals for the malcontents. Some behaviors do warrant out-of-school time: Weapons and schools don’t mix. Fighting may require separating a child from the school to assess and calm a situation.

But schools are great places to instill character, critical thinking and ethical decision-making. They may be the best places to safely resolve conflicts. Obama is right to want to keep kids in school. The policy addresses a significant systemic problem — the fact that schools abdicate the responsibility to educate the most challenging students, handing that power instead to the streets, the criminal justice system or parents who we should assume are not good educators or disciplinarians. The problem with the guidance is that the data the administration puts forth about discrimination and disparate impact neither support the charge nor address the deeper issues head on. Then again, neither do Obama’s critics.

The achievement gap for black children is not a sufficient reason to push underperformers out. (It’s no better, and no less preposterous, than another path to close the gap: stop educating white people.) If schools don’t have everything they need to instill positive behaviors in their toughest kids, then let’s find the resources and staff for them to do it. Instead of lobbying for more disciplinary autonomy for schools, let’s petition for wrap-around services, restructured in-school suspensions, conflict mediation, restorative justice programs, parenting courses, out-of school behavioral services or a host of other interventions that address the problem. Just as long as we keep the kids in school.