I am not surprised by Dropout Nation‘s reports on how schools and districts handle (or mishandle) discipline. I am not surprised that too many schools have abdicated their discipline to police officers. I have lived through the experiences and the data. Harsh discipline data doesn’t tell everything. But it does shine light on what needs to be fixed in the classroom as well as in society.
For many, many years I technically violated our union contract by going out on the yard during lunch and after school. This is because supervision wasn’t part of our duties as teachers under our contract. Over that time, I deterred or broke up my share of altercations. In my classrooms, I also found that I can maintain order. Over time, I have learned this: A committed, caring teacher can discern a goof-ball from one with malicious intent; in fact such a teacher can soften the edges of those hardened young people because they relate to them more respectfully than adults even in their life, and they appreciate that.
The ability of a committed caring teacher extends into the classroom. When I started out, my first principal said “The best classroom management is a good lesson plan.” Any parent knows that if you keep children occupied you reduce the opportunities for dumb things to happen. A classroom is no different. Schools can improve their discipline with better trained teachers and leadership creates an environment that encourages learning and deters disruptive behavior.
The 500 lb Silverback Gorilla in the room people don’t want to acknowledge is the dearth of prepared, qualified, and committed educators where they’re needed most. Teachers who only drop worksheets or lecture incessantly will invite mischief, or worse chaos. Teachers who do that tend to be the least qualified and least committed, and sadly those teachers end up where they shouldn’t be: in schools where committed, caring teachers who know how to manage classrooms are needed most. Harsh discipline can also be a function of how and why it’s meted out, as well as what you do after the harsh discipline. The problem begins before teachers go into classrooms. If you do a survey of education schools you’ll find very few that have a stand-alone course in classroom management.
Again, I am not surprised that too many schools abdicate their discipline to police officers. There are far too many schools that simply don’t have enough supervision during those non-classroom hours — from lunch time to recess — when incidents occur that might lead to discipline and worse. Especially incidents of police officers shooting students happen. I’ve also always thought that most of these tragic officer shootings are a function of their inexperience with young people. That is all the more reason not to have traditionally-trained police officers walking the corridors of schools.
There will still be situations where harsh discipline must happen. I’ve known students disciplined harshly for dumb stuff. At the same time, I’ve also known students who indeed needed to be removed from the school environment, and not allowed to return until they came with a parent. If the consequences for behavior are clear and consistent, what may seem as harsh from the outside will be accepted by the student and family. What the adults do in a school AFTER harsh discipline goes far to limiting repeat behavior. Acceptance, commitment, and support to those young people is necessary to counterbalance their burdens and manage the learning environment for everyone else.
That this sounds like what good parents do should be no surprise, and a bell-ringer: You’ve got to love these young people as your own children. If not, seriously consider another line of work.
When it comes to discussions about what to do about traditional school discipline, they usually go like this. First comes more and more data showing that black children (as well as others from poor and minority households) are the ones most-likely to be targeted for out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school arrests, and referrals to juvenile courts. Then comes additional evidence beyond all doubt shows that overuse of harsh school discipline harms the futures of children, especially young black men and women. Lastly, despite all of this evidence, traditionalists and even some reformers continue to ignore the data and evidence (or worse, try to argue that it is meaningless), arguing that the problem lies either with the children or their families or even the man on the moon.
So you can expect the report released this week by Penn State University’s Center on the Study of Race and Equity in Education to start off this usual pattern of discussion once again. Which is unfortunate. Because the Penn State study should instead force reformers and traditionalists to agree at least on one thing: It’s time to ditch the overuse of harsh school discipline once and for all.
Thanks in part to the efforts of the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, more states and districts are taking some positive steps toward restricting how suspensions and other traditional discipline approaches are used in schools. In Illinois, legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner enacted Senate Bill 100, which requires schools and districts to only use out-of-school suspensions after restorative justice and other approaches have been used. Meanwhile a video released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union showing a Kenton County, Ky., school police officer handcuffing an eight-year-old kid in special ed once again cast light on how American public education has escalated overuse of harsh discipline by using law enforcement to deal with behavioral issues that should be handled by teachers and school leaders.
But as a series of recent reports have shown, far too many states and districts are damaging the futures of children with practices that range from educational malpractice to criminal abuse. As a Penn State professor, David Ramey, detailed in a study published last month in Sociology of Education, black children are more-likely than white peers to be suspended, expelled, and even sent to jail for the same acts of misbehavior; white children, on the other hand, are more-likely to be referred to psychologists and other medical professionals. Considering that nearly all suspensions are meted out for minor issues such as disruptive behavior (and not because of acts of violence, drug abuse, or weapons possession), this almost always means that black children are being dealt harshly by adults in situations in which white peers are let off the hook.
None of this is surprising. After all, John Wallace of University of Pittsburgh showed in a 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts. As both the American Psychological Association and Russell Skiba of Indiana University have determined, young black men are also viewed by teachers and school leaders as being older, less-innocent, and greater troublemakers than white counterparts. Just as importantly, data on school discipline bears out what Vanderbilt University scholar Daniel J. Reschly’s determined eight years ago on the matter of overlabeling of kids as special ed: Adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as troublemakers because they think they are destined to end up that way.
Which makes Penn State’s latest evidence of overuse of suspensions against black children not shocking at all. But the data should outrage all of us anyway.
Culling through federal Office for Civil Rights data for 3,022 districts in 13 southern states, researchers Edward J. Smith and Shaun R. Harper determined that black kids were far more-likely to be suspended at more-disproportionate levels than white peers. Black children accounted for 48 percent of all children suspended one or more times in 2011-2012 even though they made up just 24 percent of enrollment. Black children accounted for all of the children suspended in 84 districts, and accounted for 75 percent or more of kids suspended in another 346 districts.
The overuse of harsh discipline is especially tough on young black men. They accounted for 65 percent of all young men suspended in the 13 southern states surveyed. Mississippi had the highest level of suspensions for young black men, with them accounting for seven out of every 10 young men suspended. But Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama weren’t far behind, with young black men accounting for three out of every five young male students suspended. Meanwhile young black women were also harshly disciplined by schools and districts; they accounted for 45 percent of all young women suspended. Mississippi also topped the states for the highest level, with young black women accounting for eight out of every 10 young women suspended. In Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama, young black women accounted for seven out of every 10 young women suspended.
What becomes clear from the Penn State study is that young black children are placed on the school-to-prison pipeline more-often than children from any other socioeconomic background. Other data that has accumulated over the past three decades also shows these facts: That harsh school discipline almost never leads to improvements in behavior or in school cultures. That the underlying learning issues behind children misbehaving in school — especially low levels of literacy and the lack of intensive reading remediation to help kids struggling with reading — are often ignored. That the traditional system of recruiting and training teachers has filled far too many classrooms (and principal’s offices) with men and women lacking the subject-matter competency, empathy for children, leadership ability, and training in classroom management needed to not revert to tossing kids out of schools. And that reducing overuse of suspensions and expulsions improves school cultures for everyone as well as helps keeps kids often-targeted by traditional discipline practice on the path to graduation.
Perhaps the Penn State study can rally all of us, be we reformer or traditionalist, to push for both traditional districts and charter school operators to stop overusing suspensions and expulsions. Maybe the Penn State study will lead all of us to support the Obama Administration’s crackdown on disparate use of those failed practices — and even extend it to all school operators. Possibly, it can lead to the embrace of practices such as those developed by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte that help kids improve behaviorally and academically. Surely, we can all agree that schools should lovingly discipline children the way parents who love their children do at home — which almost never involves kicking kids out of the house, subjecting them to solitary confinement, putting them in some form of bondage, or having them shot or shackled by cops. We may actually highlight the barbarity of these practices as a way to advance the reforms of teacher training and school systems that will help stem the nation’s education crisis.
But as your editor has noted, it’s more than likely that traditionalists and reformers will simply ignore the data and evidence, and complain that any effort to end or reduce overuse of harsh school discipline is merely some form of meddling. Education Next Editor Paul Peterson has already done his part with a screed in National Review complaining about the Obama Administration’s efforts on this front. Considering that Education Next has ran other pieces opposing any effort to stem overuse of suspensions (and Peterson’s defense of the magazine’s racially odious, indefensible American Gothic-inspire cover), Peterson’s piece isn’t shocking. Yet his response, along with similar views from others, does raise the question about some of those who call themselves reformers — as well as about the men and women who work in our traditional districts. If they are willing to defend failed school discipline policies that harm children in and out of schools, should they be trusted to do the right thing for kids on any matter of policy or practice?
There is a vast professional literature demonstrating that the American descendents of enslaved Africans do not fully participate in the American economy, that they are less healthy, live shorter lives, receive inferior educations, have lower rates of educational attainment and higher rates of unemployment, are paid less for similar work and suffer astronomical rates of incarceration, in large part simply for being Black.
Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist, wrote The Economics of Discrimination in 1957, and laid out the costs of racism to the descendents of enslaved Africans and other residents of the United States. Victor Perlo, a Communist economist, published Economics of Racism USA: Roots of Black Inequality in 1975, updating it in 1996. I covered much the same ground last year in The Chains of Black America.
All this is well-known. The pertinent questions today are what is to be done and who is going to take personal responsibility for doing it.
It is time to name names.
We can begin with Milwaukee, that poster city for racial inequality, with its pitiful rates of educational achievement, antebellum rates of incarceration for Black men, radically inequitable enforcement of the laws, and carefully designed and enforced geographical segregation. There are seven officials who could fundamentally change the condition of the descendants of enslaved Africans now living in Milwaukee. It is something for which they have personal responsibility.
The first is the former Milwaukee County Executive, now Wisconsin governor (and Republican presidential candidate), Scott Walker.
The second is Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s longtime State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He is a longtime school leader and player in the state education agency.
Third is current Milwaukee County Executive Christopher Abele, a philanthropist from Massachusetts whom Walker is placing in charge of education in Milwaukee, in effect as boss of Superintendent Darienne Driver.
Finally, there are the overseers of the local criminal justice system: Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, Milwaukee Chief of Police Edward Flynn and the Chief Judge of Milwaukee County, Maxine White.
With the support of Governor Walker, Evers, Abele, and Driver could improve educational opportunities for Milwaukee’s children. It would not take further research: Address teacher quality; provide early childhood education for three- and four-year-old; longer school days and school years; more-challenging curricula. [Other school reformers offer other approaches, including the expansion of high-quality charter schools serving Black children, which could also help.]
Together, these political leaders could address these issues. We are they going to do so? Why haven’t they done it as yet?
Governor Walker and County Chief Executive Abele could design a regional public transportation system that would make suburban jobs accessible for urban residents. They could implement planning to break-up the nearly totally segregated housing patterns of Milwaukee County. They could put in place effective job-training and other school reforms that can help adults poorly-served by public education gain the knowledge they need for economic success.
Walker and Abele, working together, could do this. When are they going to begin doing so? Why have they not done it as yet?
With the support of Gov. Walker, Judge White, Chief Flynn and District Attorney Chisholm could devise ways to bring equity to the Milwaukee County criminal justice system. They could reform police department policies concerning stops and arrests, prosecutorial policies concerning indictments, court policies on sentencing. Milwaukee sorely needs those reforms, as does the rest of Wisconsin.Walker does deserve credit for signing into a requirement that deaths at the hand of police officers are to be handled by independent investigators. But that’s not enough.
Walker, White, Flynn and Chisholm could do this. When are they going to begin doing so? Why have they not done it as yet?
Wisconsin is a wealthy state. The facts are well-known. These people have the authority needed to make it possible for Milwaukee’s children to have bright futures. It is their personal responsibility. Why have they not done it as yet? When are they going to do it?
The excellent researchers at the Pew Research Center have looked at recent Census Bureau data and found that although Asian, White and Hispanic (who may be of any race) child poverty percentages have declined in the last few years, the Black child poverty rate has actually increased both since 2010 and, indeed, from 2000. It is now just under 40 percent, which is approximately what it was 30 years ago. According to Eileen Patten and Jens Manuel Krogstad: “Black children were almost four times as likely as white or Asian children to be living in poverty in 2013, and significantly more likely than Hispanic children.”
Patten and Krogstad leave it there, but these data cry out for answers to the following questions: Why do so many Black children continue to disproportionately live in poverty? And what are the implications of this continuing tragedy?
Obviously, Black children live in poverty because their parents are poor. Black median household incomes are less than two-thirds the White average and while the poverty rate for all White families is 9 percent, it is 24 percent for Black families. And why is that? Part of the reason is that the unemployment rate for Black Americans is twice that for Whites. Part of the reason is differences in educational attainment. Nearly one-third more Black adults over 25 years of age than White are without high school diplomas, while those proportions are reversed for college graduates and nearly twice the percentage of White Americans than Black have graduate degrees. A Black man is much more likely to be without a high school diploma than to have a graduate degree; again, the reverse of the situation for White men. And Black pay rates for every type of job and at every level of educational attainment are lower than the wages of their White co-workers.
Three times the percentage of Black households as White (30 percent versus 10 percent) are those of female householders, no husband present, with children under 18 years. With only one possible wage-earner in the household, nearly half of the children in these households live in poverty. Not that being a single parent household naturally leads to either poverty or educational underachievement. As Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich noted earlier this year in an analysis of data from the PISA tests of international student success, achievement gaps between married households and single-parent homes declined by 60 percent (from 27 points to 10 points) when adjusted for educational attainment and number of books in a home.
Black children live in poverty because their families are poor. Their families are poor because their parents have lower educational attainment than the adults in White families, are more likely to be unemployed, and if employed are paid less than White workers of equal educational attainment. Some factors in the relatively higher unemployment rate of Black workers include segregated housing remote from workplaces in areas, such as Milwaukee, with limited public transportation, and the tendency of employers to hire White applicants over equally qualified Black applicants on the basis of race alone.
Then there are those absent fathers. More than one-third of those absent fathers are easy to find. President Obama pointed out the other day in a speech to the NAACP that one in nine Black children now have a parent in prison. The incarceration rate for Black men is six times that of White men (and more than twice that of Hispanic men). This is vastly out of proportion to crime rates and is largely attributable, as the President has said, to the inequities of the criminal justice system: Police are more likely to stop Black men than White men in similar circumstances and more likely to ticket or arrest them.
Prosecutors (overwhelmingly White men) are more likely to prosecute Black Americans than White Americans for similar crimes and judges give Black men more severe sentences than they give White men for similar crimes. These inequities in the criminal justice system directly affect child poverty rates. When in prison Black men cannot contribute to family budgets and it is unlikely that ex-prisoners can earn enough to lift their children out of poverty with child support payments or other contributions to their household.
To complete this cycle, Black children living in poverty often live in highly segregated neighborhoods with poorly resourced schools. In many cities half or more male Black students do not receive a high school diploma and those that do are relatively unlikely to be well-prepared for college or careers. They are, however, highly qualified to be targeted by police for standing, walking or driving while Black. As a result, their children, as well, will be quite likely to live in poverty.
The situation has not changed over the past 30 years. So how could it change in the next 30? The answer starts with reforming education in order to achieve economic and social justice.
Schools with a predominately Black enrollment should be fully resourced, beginning with universal pre-kindergarten at age 3, with extended k-12 school days, weeks and years, high effective teachers and challenging curricula. College tuition should be free for all Black children whose family income is below the national median. Hiring and pay practices should be monitored for racial (and gender) inequities and where those are found remedial actions should be enforced. Black home ownership in non-segregated communities should be facilitated with federally guaranteed, low-interest mortgages. The criminal justice system should be radically reformed, perhaps in many places brought under federal supervision. School reformers should work together with criminal justice reform advocates and others to undertake these much-needed measures.
These initiatives could be supported by humane, rational legislation at all levels of government, or, if such a thing is impossible, by reparations for slavery and Jim Crow, calculated on the basis of the current disparities in income and wealth between the families of Black and White children, paid by those currently existing corporations and other entities that profited by slavery, Jim Crow and today’s disparities. We won’t count on the last solution. But the rest can be easily done if we have to political will to make them reality.
There are numerous problems with the traditional approach school discipline meted out by America’s traditional districts and many charter schools. One of the biggest lies with the longstanding trend by districts to launch police departments as well as bring in law enforcement agencies in the form of so-called school resource officers to police the corridors of school buildings. As the U.S. Department of Justice highlighted earlier this year in its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, police officers who should only be handling incidents of violence end up using force to address student misbehavior, leading to kids being arrested or detained for minor incidents such as disruptive behavior that should be addressed by teachers and school leaders through better means.
Now as an analysis by Mother Jones reveals this week, the consequences of using police officers to handle school discipline can even lead to children being injured, maimed, and killed inside school buildings. This report, along with the three decades of data on how traditional harsh school discipline damages children educationally, should lead school reformers to join cause with criminal justice reform advocates to end practices that are inhumane as well as ineffective in improving student achievement.
Over the past five years, 28 children have been choked, punched, beaten, tasered, left brain damaged, and even shot to death by rogue cops and school resource officers, according to Mother Jones‘ research. Among the victims: Noe Nino de Rivera, a 17-year-old junior Cedar Creek High School in Bastrop County, Texas, who ended up in a coma for a full year after one officer, Randy McMillan, tasered Rivera after he tried to break up a fight between fellow students. While de Rivera still suffers from the trauma, McMillan avoided criminal indictment and even got a promotion.
Another victim, an unnamed 13-year-old who attended Olmsted Academy North in Louisville, Ky., suffered a brain injury after a police officer, Jonathan Hardin, choked him into unconsciousness; the incident was caught on video. The good news is that Hardin did get fired for this as well as for another injuring of a child at the same school; Hardin also ended up being indicted for his alleged crimes.
Because federal and state governments doesn’t collect much in the way of data on police conduct in traditional districts and other school operations, it is quite likely that far more than 28 children are injured by cops in schools over the past five years.
Huffington Post Editor Rebecca Klein reported this past April that 25 incidents of injuries to children by cops occurred within the past year alone. In the traditional district serving Birmingham, Ala., 110 incidents of pepper-spraying of children by cops have happened since 2006, according to Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Ebony Howard, who is representing eight children injured during one such incident in lawsuit against the district and city’s police department.
Meanwhile the bad behavior of rogue cops in schools extends beyond injury and death. As Philip Matthew Stimson and Adam M. Watkins of Bowling Green State University determined in a study released last year, 61.5 percent of school cops arrested were charged sexual abuse. Seventy-five percent of those cases involved abuse of children in secondary schools. Given that school cops are the primary handlers of school discipline within many districts, the risks of rogue school cops harming children are even higher than ever officially reported (when it is reported at all).
Certainly these and other incidents are stark reminders of the need to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice and law enforcement systems. So does the fact that so many officers who injure children never face criminal charges for their misbehavior. As Dropout Nation reported back in December, rogue cops are as insulated from suffering the consequences of rogue behavior as laggard and criminally-incompetent teachers. Considering that only one-in-three police officers charged with crimes ever serve prison time — and that cops such as Daniel Pantaleo (who murdered Eric Garner last year) are almost never indicted for their misbehavior — it is no surprise that school resource officers and other cops can get away with harming the lives of children under their watch.
But the problem doesn’t lie with police departments alone. The excessive force used by cops and school resource officers in schools results also from districts leveraging criminal and juvenile justice systems to address student behavioral issues instead of addressing the low-quality teaching and curricula from which those issues arise. Districts accounted for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies. As I reported nine years ago in an editorial series for the Indianapolis Star, districts end up using the courts to address nonviolent (and normal) misbehavior by children that can should be addressed by teachers and school leaders through other means. This includes the case of Donna, a 13-year-old who was sentenced to probation for the schoolkid prank of tossing snow into a teacher’s car.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that over the past three decades districts, with subsidies from the federal government, have launched their own police departments even though youth crime declined substantially.
Between 1996 and 2008, the number of districts operating police departments more than doubled (from 117 to 250), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Thanks largely to the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, school district police departments have also become willing participants in the militarization of law enforcement that was on full display in Ferguson and Baltimore after the murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray at the hands of rogue cops. While the Obama Administration has stopped providing military weapons to school cops, districts such as Compton Unified in California still arm police with AR-15 rifles and grenades.
Meanwhile the federal Community Oriented Police program, along with fears over the Columbine Massacre and other rare incidents of mass shootings, have increased the presence of police in schools. The number of cops patrolling schoolhouses increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Forty percent of districts in America have some form of police officer patrolling schoolhouse grounds, 40 times the levels 40 years ago.
The presence of cops haven’t improved school cultures one bit. As University of Maryland researchers Chongmin Na and Denise Gottfredson determined in a 2011 study, there is little evidence that the presence of school cops lead to decreases in violent incidents or other forms of misbehavior; evidence does show that the presence of school cops did increase the percentage of kids referrals to law enforcement, which, as Na and Gottfredson “suggests that there is indeed a shift toward more formal processing of youthful offending in these schools.” Matthew Theriot of the University of Tennessee determined in a 2009 study that over a three-year period, schools patrolled by cops had five times the level of arrests for disorderly conduct — the legal equivalent of the rather-subjective and arbitrary discipline category of disruptive behavior — than schools without them; the levels remained constant even after adjusting for socioeconomic background.
Regardless of what schools they patrol, school cops do little to improve school cultures. None of this should be shocking. The presence of police transforms school discipline from a matter of addressing underlying causes of child misbehavior to a criminal justice concern. This is because police officers become the primary handlers of school discipline; as Na and Gottsfredson notes, school cops spend 25 percent of their time “counseling students” — even though few receive the kind of training needed to handle child behavioral issues without resorting to arrest and injury. Children, especially those in communities in which police brutality has become all too common, don’t view cops as Officer Friendlys there to help. If anything, because of the nature of law enforcement, the presence of school cops makes already harsh and ineffective school discipline even more damaging and unproductive.
The presence of cops in schools is also ineffective because it allows teachers and school leaders to further abdicate their responsibility to help all children succeed. As it is, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions excuse them from addressing the underlying learning issues — especially struggles with literacy and lack of intense reading remediation — that lead to kids behaving poorly. Thanks to school cops, teachers and school leaders can simply refer children to cops for arrest instead of addressing issues on their own. Especially in schools and districts serving poor and minority children, school cop patrols allow for laggard instructors and principals to believe that the kids in their classrooms are merely the potential lawless, not young people whose potential can and should be nurtured. The teachers and school leaders end up working with police officers to transform schools into virtual jails where childhood is criminalized.
Certainly there are rare situations in which police presence is necessary. But there are almost no reasons why school cops are a constant presence in so many schools. Police officers who are charged with serving schools and districts should be provided high-quality training, especially in child psychology, to ensure that they use force as the last means of resort. Federal and state governments should collect more-comprehensive data on the role of cops in schools; this includes detailed reports on incidents in which cops use force on children.
But the best solution is to shut down school police departments and reduce the number of cops patrolling school grounds so that police only show up for actual incidents of violence endangering children and adults. This should start with Congress and the Obama Administration cutting off funding for the federal COPS program and its school resource officer initiative, an underlying culprit in the growing presence of cops in schools. On this front, school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates (especially those in the Black Lives Matter movement) can come together to help our children.
But reducing the footprint of law enforcement in schools isn’t enough. Three decades of data have long ago shown this: That traditional school discipline used by America’s traditional districts and many charter schools is ineffective in improving student achievement and school cultures. That out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are almost always used to address behavioral issues that have nothing to do with violence or drug use. That traditional discipline practices almost always targets children from poor and minority households. That the use of such practices never address the literacy issues that lead to child misbehavior. That suspensions and expulsions teach law enforcement to regard poor and minority kids as felons and worse. And that traditional school discipline almost always leads to kids dropping out of school into poverty and prison. As hard as folks like Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies may try, no school reformer can morally or intellectually defend these failed and barbaric practices.
On this front, the Obama Administration deserves credit for holding districts accountable for how they mete out such punishment. But it isn’t enough. Embracing alternatives to traditional discipline such as restorative justice is key. Overhauling how districts provide reading instruction and curricula would help more kids struggling with literacy avoid behavioral issues. Both are matters on which reformers and criminal justice reform advocates should work together closely and often.
We can no longer ignore the damaging and unchecked presence of law enforcement in the schools charged with helping all children succeed in school and life. A child should not be choked, brain-damaged, or murdered by a police officer mishandling situations that call for tender loving discipline.
Featured Photo: Noe Nino de Rivera, a high school junior in Texas, is one of many children injured and damaged by school police officers.
In 1956 the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in Los Angeles to publicize efforts by “subversives” to repeal laws mandating imprisonment and deportation of people who disagreed with those laws. On December 6, 1956, HUAC attempted to interrogate Frank J. Whitley, a Black real estate broker.
Mr. Whitley. “Both of my parents were slaves here in America, and I have been persecuted ever since the day of my birth. And this committee or no other committee has taken up my cause . . . They are killing me and my people all over this country, and you know it. And you know it . . . What about Emmett Till? What about Mr. Moore in Florida a few years ago? And I don’t have to go that far. I can start right in Los Angeles. The same thing is happening.”
Mr. [Congressman] Doyle. “You don’t charge the United States Government with killing?”
Mr. Whitley. “For doing nothing about it. That is why I charge them . . . It’s been 90 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. They are begging to go to school in Texas even, right here by us. What are you doing? You are searching for some subversion you talk about.”
The committee could not get Mr. Whitley off the witness stand fast enough.
This story brings together three basic ways in which harm is inflicted on the Black community: governmental action (or inaction), education, and housing. Mr. Whitley knew that his clients had great difficulty finding housing or obtaining mortgages to purchase homes outside of Watts or other traditionally Black areas of Los Angeles. He knew that although their children could go to school (unlike their cousins in Texas), those schools were inferior to the schools attended by White children. And, as he told the committee, he knew that the police and courts were not to be relied on by the Black community.
Much has changed in the nearly 60 years since Mr. Whitley’s testimony. At the same time, evidence shows that much when it comes to the mistreatment of Black people (especially children) remains the same. And again, the country does nothing.
The Guardian, a newspaper that is based far outside this country in Great Britain, is tracking the numbers of people here killed by police, records that are not kept by neither federal agency nor newspapers based on these shores. Nearing the mid-point of the year, they have identified 490 in 2015 alone, 28 percent of whom were Black. This is twice the share of the descendants of enslaved Africans in the total population.
For doing nothing… I charge them.
A new study funded by the Women Donors Network has revealed that the racial and gender disparities among elected prosecutors, such as district attorneys, are on a scale similar to that in apartheid South Africa. In the state of Ohio, for example, there is only one prosecuting attorney identified as non-White: the Hispanic prosecuting attorney of Stark County. All prosecuting attorneys in the state are male. All but one of the district attorneys in Wisconsin are White. All the district attorneys in Tennessee are White. Of the fifty district attorneys in New York State, just three are Black and two are Hispanic. Just two of the prosecutors in Illinois are Hispanic, none are Black. And so it goes.
For doing nothing… I charge them.
In Cleveland the Black community has so little confidence in the police and district attorney that they decided to bypass local prosecutors and take the case of the shooting of 12 year-old Tamir Rice directly to a judge. But if African Americans cannot trust the police or district attorneys, can they really trust the courts? Based on data showing the low likelihood of police officers being indicted for use of excessive force in killing unarmed Black men such as Eric Garner, the answer is already apparent.
For doing nothing… I charge them.
This brings us to Atlanta, where Black teachers are now going to prison as a consequence of an unprecedented application of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Now former Atlanta Supt. Beverly Hall, who led steady improvements of the district, and teachers who worked there, were charged with a conspiracy to improve test scores by cheating.
Cheating is clearly unacceptable and absolutely wrong – a point Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle has made several times in discussing what happened in Atlanta. But it is hard to believe that the district attorney there really thought that Hall’s efforts to improve achievement (as measured by test score growth) amounted to a conspiracy like fixing a horse race or issuing sub-prime loans to unqualified home buyers.
While Hall retired and shortly died, a highly emotional White judge handed out sentences of astonishing severity to the teachers and educators who were still alive. Actions that in other districts have been punished with reprimands or, at most, termination of employment, were criminalized in Atlanta.
For doing nothing… I charge them.
This sort of thing is not unusual or new in Georgia. Many African Americans were held in debt peonage there, and in neighboring states, well into the twentieth century. Compulsory schooling for Black children came late to the state and voting by the descendants of enslaved Africans even later.
But if the police anywhere in the country cannot be trusted not to kill unarmed Black children, prosecutors cannot be trusted to bring those police to trial, and judges cannot be trusted to be reasonable in their sentencing, what is to be done?
It is possible that the failure of the public schools to educate most Black children can be remedied by using charter school legislation to create a well-funded national system of schools for Black children who are unlikely to be well-served by their local schools. It is possible that the segregated, inferior housing of all too many Black families can be replaced with wide-spread home ownership by means of a targeted mortgage guarantee program for the descendants of enslaved Africans.
But what is to be done about the police, the prosecutors and the courts? The U.S. Department of Justice is overseeing some police departments. This could be done more widely, more intensely. Similar actions could be taken in regard to district attorney offices and local courts. There is a precedent for this. It was called Reconstruction. It was effective in the South until destroyed by those who regretted the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps it should be given another try, this time on a nation-wide basis.
Because when it comes to our criminal justice and education systems, America can’t continue to do nothing.