Few would quarrel with the proposition that the purpose of schools is to educate children. And yet every day the educations of young Black women are disproportionately interrupted, if not terminated, by corporal punishment, arrests, expulsions and out-of-school suspensions.
Research has shown that teachers, school and district administrators are much more likely to punish young Black women than they are to punish White and Asian female peers for similar activities. These actions by teachers, school and district administrators make it much more likely that the school careers of Black girls subjected to them will end before high school graduation.
The red herrings that are all too often immediately deployed to defend these disparities in school discipline data are that discipline is needed for schooling to take place. This usually comes in the form of statement like: “We can’t let a few disruptive students keep others from learning”. Others tend to argue these days that overuse of harsh school discipline is much worse for young Black men than for female peers.
But based on the evidence, both assertions are invalid.
The massive, in-effect “double-blind,” study of discipline issues in Texas by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments has proven as conclusively as possible in these matters that the school discipline activities of adults do not correlate with the activities of the children: they correlate with the racial attitudes of the teachers and administrators.
The frequency of student actions requiring intervention is described by the data concerning White and Asian students. The differences between that baseline and the school discipline data concerning young Black women is itself a measure of the racism and ethnic prejudice expressed in this way—consciously or not—by teachers, school and district administrators.
As to the second red herring, that school discipline disparities are worse for young Black men —they are not, as a matter of fact, worse proportionately within gender and, in any case, the fact that young Black men are treated appallingly does not justify treating young Black women badly. It could be argued that given the enormous damage done to the Black community by the operations of the school-to-prison pipeline for Black men and the limited earning capacity resulting from it, not to mention the much reduced longevity of Black men, it is all the more important that young Black women do well in school and graduate career- and college-ready. Racially- and ethnically-based school discipline actions stand in the way of this goal.
There are enormous, racially- and ethnically-based disparities in the application of school discipline procedures in districts with large numbers of young Black women. Districts that expel or suspend disproportionate numbers of Black girls are also likely to disproportionately send them to the police. Some districts, such as Caddo Parish in Louisiana; Memphis; the Atlanta, Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb districts in Georgia; Chicago, Baltimore and New York City are particularly liable to resort to actions that push young Black women out of school.
Other districts continue to use “corporal punishment,” that is, beatings. Administrators in the school districts of Montgomery County, Alabama, and Richmond County, Ga., between them, used wooden paddles on 115 Black girls and just two White girls in 2011, the most recent year for which national data is available. Caddo Parish, Louisiana, school officials paddled 79 Black girls and ten White girls.
Adults in the District of Columbia paddled fourteen Black girls and no White girls. The policies of these districts seem to permit and even encourage actions that are indistinguishable from sexual battery as defined by their state laws.
Less sensationally, but, in the long run, perhaps more damaging, Fulton County, expelled without educational services, proportionately eleven times as many young Black women as young White women. Memphis and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, expelled more than six times the percentage of Black as of White girls. Cobb and Chatham counties, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville expelled four times as many Black as White girls. Chicago expelled 85 Black girls and no White girls; Atlanta expelled 39 Black girls and no White girls.
[The African American Policy Forum released a report last week that focuses on how American public education pushes out young Black women. I contributed research to it.]
What can be done? Districts with excessive reliance on expulsions and suspensions can be reformed. For example, the Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice Program utilizes a three-part model to decrease referrals for suspensions and expulsions and increase the feeling of safety in schools. The model includes “prevention, repairing harm & alternatives to suspension, and supported re-entry.” Staff and students are trained on alternatives to suspension and expulsion, to build community and prevent violence. Teachers and other staff are encouraged to talk with students in order to find ways to keep them in school, rather than talking only with one another about how to push students out of school.
Of course, programs like that in Oakland have a basic requirement: local policy-makers—superintendents, members of boards of education, school-site administrators—must wish to end racially-based disparities in the way that students are viewed and treated.
Don’t forget to check out Michael Holzman’s latest book, The Chains of Black America: The Hammer of the Police, the Anvil of the Schools.