Yesterday’s mistrial in the proceedings against former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager for murdering Walter Scott wasn’t shocking. After all, the jury had announced the Friday before that one juror declined to find Slager guilty. Just as importantly, even in cases such as that of Scott in which there is irrefutable videotaped evidence of rogue policing, jurors rarely find cops guilty for misconduct and wrongfully using deadly force. Considering that cases such as that of Scott and Eric Garner (whose murderer, New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, was allowed to go free by a grand jury) are rarely adjudicated, it is amazing that Slager was indicted at all. The good news, if that can be claimed, is that at least six people thought Slager should be convicted — and that the district attorney in the case will retry him again.
All that said, it is impossible to understate the pain Scott’s family is going through. They lost their loved one in what should be the enjoyable years of middle age all because Slager, who had already been cited in two complaints for abusive behavior with tasers, decided to stop him for a broken brake light, then murder him in broad daylight. Slager brutally slain a man for no reason other than for his own ego — and for that, he deserves nothing less than God’s judgement and prison time. And Scott’s family continues to need our prayers for them to find justice and peace beyond understanding.
For communities black and brown, the mistrial was just another reminder that their chances of gaining any measure of human justice, especially when they are victimized by rogue police officers, is slim to none. It is also a reminder that black men often take the brunt of harm in their interactions with law enforcement; numerous studies, including the controversial analysis from Harvard’s Roland Fryer, have shown consistently that cops are more-likely to be stop and subject black men to harsh force regardless of incident than they are against white peers. Which puts black men at higher risk of ending up in body bags.
What does the Slager mistrial have to do with school reformers? Plenty. As I wrote two years ago, you can’t proclaim to be a champion for all children if you are not championing them at all times. After all, you can only reach people when your care and consideration for the matters of their greatest concern. Just as importantly, the school reform movement cannot sustain its efforts without support from communities who are also dealing with the other issues that result from (and contribute to) low-quality education.
As you already know, there are many in the school reform movement who disagree with this assessment. Within this year alone, folks such as Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have complained that efforts by peers to support criminal justice reform — especially the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in 2014 after the murder of Michael Brown — is essentially an effort to push conservative reformers out of school reform altogether. For folks like him, the emergence of civil rights-oriented reformers into the vanguard essentially crowds out the more-conservative thinking that has long-dominated the movement.
Other conservative reformers such as Jay P. Greene argue that even discussing Black Lives Matter and social justice issues causes division when the focus should only be on transforming education. As far as Greene and his colleagues are concerned, the last thing reformers need to do is engage in discussing matters on which there is no consensus and therefore, becomes harder to rally support for solutions to the nation’s education crisis.
As far as Pondiscio’s argument is concerned, there isn’t really more to say other than you can’t call for ideological diversity (as he has) and then complain when you get it. As Pondiscio’s former colleague at Fordham, Kathleen Porter-Magee, rightfully argues, embracing new voices and new ideas is critical to systemic reform. More importantly, we should be as morally concerned about stopping state-sanctioned racism civil rights against black and brown children and their families as we are about failure mills that also damage their lives and futures.
As for Greene’s point: It is pure nonsense. One of the most-interesting aspects of the criminal justice reform movement is that it has been as championed by many conservatives and libertarians (including Radley Balko of the Washington Post, Jonathan Blanks of the Cato Institute, Congressman Justin Amash, and Atlantic Monthly‘s Conor Friedensdorf) as it has been by progressives and Black Lives Matter activists. Cato, in particular, is holding a conference this week tackling such issues as mass incarceration and militarization of police departments (including those harming children in our schools).
If conservatives and libertarians who spend little time on education can find common cause with Black Lives Matter activists, why can’t those who are primarily concerned with building brighter futures for children?
Meanwhile there is another reason why reformers should work together with criminal justice reform advocates that has become more-important than ever: The threat to the movement’s very aims posed by the incoming administration of Donald Trump.
As Dropout Nation has argued repeatedly last month, the President-Elect’s appointment of longtime reformer Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education (as well as the association of some conservative reformers with the transition) threatens to associate the laudable goal of helping poor and minority families gain access to high-quality educational opportunities with an incoming administration already associated with bigotry, nativism, and anti-Semitism. This isn’t just a threat to choice. The success of the movement itself continues to depend on a bipartisan and socioeconomically diverse coalition that includes progressives, Centrist Democrats, and black civil rights activists for whom bigotry against children black and brown is a major concern.
Tackling criminal justice reform — which will be opposed at every turn by the incoming Trump Administration — is an important way to signal bipartisanship as well as show poor and minority communities that we will stand up for them.
This isn’t to say that reformers shouldn’t focus most of their time on transforming American public education. That is paramount. But there are plenty of ways reformers can partner with criminal justice reform advocates on addressing the rogue policing and criminalization of lives black and brown that affect the lives of our children as much as laggard and criminally abusive teachers.
As your editor noted yesterday in the analysis of National Education Association’s political spending, the union has figured out that putting a little money toward something as simple as a ballot initiative can win allies among progressives for their cause of defending their influence over education policymaking. Reformers can do similar things. Write letters in support of legislation calling for abolishing the use of grand juries in use of deadly force cases. Back ballot measures on such criminal justice reform matters as the use of traffic tickets (which necessitate traffic stops) to generate revenue for municipal coffers. Even endorse criminal reform-minded candidates running for district attorney posts and state legislative seats.
Reformers can also work together with criminal justice reform advocates on addressing the prominent role American public education plays in putting kids on the path to prison.
Remember this: Schools account for three out of every 10 status cases referred to juvenile courts in 2011, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. This is particularly problematic because juvenile court judges are ill-equipped to deal with matters that should be handled by schools, and juvenile jails are often beset by incidents of sexual assault and other abuse. Reformers can easily work with Black Lives Matter activists and others to reduce (if not end altogether) the number of children put on the path to courtrooms and jails.
One way to do this: End the overuse of harsh traditional school discipline. Decades of studies from researchers such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University have determined that overuse of suspensions are harmful to student achievement, especially for children from poor and minority households (including black students) who disproportionately suspended at higher rates (and often for minor offenses) than white peers. When districts over-suspend poor and minority children, they perpetuate perceptions among law enforcement and the wider community that black and Latino children are only criminals. Just as importantly, as Dropout Nation has noted time and time and time again, the overuse of harsh school discipline allows lets teachers and school leaders off the hook for their failures to address underlying issues such as illiteracy that lead to children acting out.
Supporting solutions on this front — from new concepts such as restorative justice, to existing efforts such as overhauling how we recruit, train, and evaluate teachers, even to recruiting and supporting talented collegians and mid-career professionals of minority backgrounds to work with kids who look like them — help children both in and out of school.
Reformers can even help criminal justice reform advocates by sharing the lessons they have learned about tackling teacher quality and contract issues. This is already happening. The police union contract database developed by Campaign Zero, the outfit formed by the cadre of Black Lives Matter activists that include Deray McKesson and Brittany Packnett, is modeled in part off National Council on Teacher Quality’s famed TR3 database. Reformers can use their experiences in developing alternative teacher training regimes to help their counterparts address how cops are recruited and trained — a key culprit behind the murders of Scott, Tamir Rice, and other black lives.
Now, more than ever, reformers have opportunities to work hand-in-hand with other advocates in building brighter futures for all of our children. It is our moral duty to ensure that our children grow up with the knowledge they need for success in adulthood — and can live safely in their communities without threat by police officers consumed by dark desires to engage in thuggery, bigotry, and venality.
Aleppo, once, but perhaps not still, the largest city in Syria, is divided into one section occupied by President Assad’s government of Syria and another besieged section. Recently, Russian airplanes have been bombing the latter, causing deaths and immense suffering to children as well as adults. The story runs on the news, worldwide, every day. The United Nations and other entities are in nearly continuous session to consider what can be done.
Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin, is divided as starkly into two sections: one White, one non-White. According to one of a recent series of articles in The New York Times, schools in metropolitan Milwaukee “are as segregated now as they were in 1965. Nearly three in four black students attend schools where at least 90 percent of the students are not white . . . Only 15.7 percent of Milwaukee Public School students tested proficient in reading in 2013-14, and 20.3 percent in math . . . Nearly one out of every eight black men in Milwaukee County has served time behind bars . . . The black unemployment rate in Milwaukee County is 20 percent, nearly three times greater than for white people.”
That sounds familiar. Nearly three years ago, in a Dropout Nation essay, I compared Milwaukee to Mississippi. The bad news is that Mississippi came out better. Back then, I pointed out such data as:
- More than 40 percent of Black families with children in Milwaukee had incomes below the poverty line.
- The median household income of Black families in Milwaukee was $26,600. The poverty line for a family of four in Wisconsin was $23,550.
- Seventy percent of male Black students in Milwaukee scored at the Below Basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Grade 8 Reading examination. For most purposes that meant they couldn’t read.
- Of the 3,100 male Black students in grade 9 in the 2007-08 school year in Milwaukee, 1,300 made it to grade 12 by 2010-11 (42 percent).
- Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for Black people was 4,416 per 100,000, ten times the rate at which it imprisoned White people.
Some things have improved. The percentage of male Black eighth-graders in Milwaukee schools who can read at grade level has increased from three percent to four percent. At this rate, most Black male eighth-graders will be able to read at grade level by the year 2100, give or take a few years.
On the other hand, of the 2,506 Black male ninth-graders in the 2010-11 school year, 1,004 made it to senior year of high school by 2013-14 (a drop from 42 percent to 40 percent). At that rate, by the year 2100 no male Black students would be promoted from freshman to senior year.
The percentage of Black families with children with incomes below the poverty line has increased from 40 percent to 47 percent. The median household income for Black families in Milwaukee has declined to $24,967 (just above the current poverty line for a family of four of $24,300).
The Times article emphasized housing segregation, using as its human interest hook an affluent Black family to illustrate the ghettoization of Black families achieved by redlining of loans and White hostility. A nearly simultaneous Boston Globe op-ed focused on the way that now-Governor Scott Walker has manipulated mass transit to isolate Black residents of Milwaukee and increase Black unemployment. There is little or no access to mass transit for Black residents of Milwaukee and, as Lois Quinn and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, have demonstrated for years, driving while Black in the area is a gateway to mass incarceration.
Milwaukee is not Aleppo. County Sheriff Clarke is not President Assad. Governor Walker is not Putin. It is more banal than that. Black men in Milwaukee have faced incarceration and unemployment as normal events for many years now. Black families have been forced to live in restricted and deteriorating neighborhoods as a matter of routine. Black children have been forced into schools that do not educate them—for many years now. This goes on, year after year. It is normal. No conferences are called. Unless there is violence, as there was recently, occasioning the articles in the Times and the Globe, there are no headlines in the mainstream media.
When will something be done? What is to be done? Who is to do it?
Speaking of President Putin, about ten years ago he crushed a rebellion in the region of Chechnya, killing large numbers of people and leveling the city of Grozny, which was then rebuilt, sparing no expense. One can imagine Governor Walker sending uniformed forces into Milwaukee with Ferguson-style armored vehicles. One can imagine the Black neighborhoods of the city burning. However, one cannot imagine Governor Walker and his supporters subsequently rebuilding those neighborhoods, improving the schools, ending redlining and mass incarceration.
They have had plenty of time to do those things. It is quite evident that they like things the way they are.
There’s no good reason why it took 13 months for prosecutors in Chicago to indict police officer Jason Van Dyke for murdering 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Not at all. There’s also no reason why the Second City’s police department withheld and even deleted video evidence that the 14-year veteran fired 16 bullets within 15 seconds into the body of the unarmed youth as he was walking away. No good reason at all. There’s no justifiable reason why Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel allowed his police bureaucrats to do everything possible to cover-up what Van Slyke did to McDonald — including paying out a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family in order to keep matters hush hush. None at all. There’s clearly no reason why Van Dyke even pulled out his gun in the first place — especially when his fellow officers didn’t view McDonald as a threat to their own safety. Not one good reason whatsoever.
Calling Van Dyke’s murder of McDonald immoral and indefensible is a grand understatement that fails to fully consider the damage he has done. The officer took the life of a fellow child of God and member of the Family of Man for no good reason. Because of Van Dyke, Laquan now joins Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other innocent black men and women who have been slain at the hands of venal and morally debased men in uniform. The murder is also another reminder that state-sanctioned murder of black men is at the heart of the racial bigotry that is America’s Original Sin. As demonstrated by the efforts of Jamie Kalvern of the Invisible Institute and University of Chicago Law Professor Craig Futterman to reveal and publicize the existence of the tapes, this case is a lesson on why no government can be trusted to do right by any human being, much less the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to this continent so long ago.
The only good thing that can be said is that with Van Dyke’s indictment, there’s at least a chance of justice being done on behalf of McDonald and his family. This is because few rogue cops are ever indicted, much less convicted, of their criminal misdeeds. Once again, Van Dyke’s indictment is another reminder of how incompetent police bureaucracies, state laws, and the cultism among those wearing the badge often act to protects corrupt and murderous police officers. Particularly for the school reform movement, the problems of removing rogue cops mirror the struggles to rid classrooms and schools of laggard and criminally abusive teachers. Which is why we must join together with criminal justice reformers to keep rogue cops and laggard teachers from damaging our children.
The especially sad thing about McDonald’s murder is that it didn’t have to happen in the first place. Even before he slayed the young man, Van Dyke had a well-deserved reputation as a thug in a uniform. During the course of his career, 18 complaints were filed against him for using excessive force, engaging in illegal searches, and uttering racial slurs during arrests. The Second City had to pay out $500,000 to one of Van Dyke’s victims in order to address his misdeeds. With such a lengthy record on his personnel file, Van Dyke should have lost his badge and gun. Yet Van Dyke was never disciplined.
One likely reason: The Second City’s arduous and cumbersome process for disciplining and firing rogue cops. Because several different units of the police department — including the internal affairs unit, the Independent Police Review Authority, and the Police Board (which decides whether to mete out discipline in the most-serious cases) — are in charge of investigating and addressing misconduct, the misbehavior of rogue cops can fall through the cracks. It can take as long as 328 days to investigate an incident of misconduct, according to a report produced last year for Chicago by a team led by Ron Safer, a partner for law firm Schiff Hardin. In one case, it took the IPRA five years to determine that an officer, Bruce Askew, should be fired and charged with excessive force after he cracked the skull of Greg Larkins during an arrest. [The city’s police board dismissed that complaint because it was filed after the statute of limitations ran out.] Little wonder why IPRA recommended the firing of just two out of 400 officers brought before it in the last eight years.
Adding to the bureaucratic morass: The fact that Chicago’s police superintendent is barred from being the ultimate decisionmaker in the disciplinary process. While the superintendent can recommend a firing after being given the right to do so by the IPRA, it is still up to the Police Board to make the final decision. Because of the labyrinthine process and lack of clear oversight, commanders who directly oversee rogue cops take no responsibility for holding them accountable.
Then there are the state laws and court rulings that allow for police officers to use excessive force with impunity. Beginning in 1985 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Garner v. Tennessee, state laws give officers wide leeway in how they use deadly force in stopping criminal activity. Officers can shoot to kill if they “objectively reasonable” probably cause to “believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others”. The problem is that it is almost impossible to determine what is objective or reasonable, and thus, objective becomes subjective and unreliable. More often than not, if a police officer says he fears for his life, then he is let off the hook. Since state laws rarely require the objective standard to be based on physical evidence, even a videotape isn’t enough to lead to an indictment, much less a conviction.
Illinois took a step in the right direction on this front this past August when state legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner passed a police reform law that bans officers from using choke holds as well as restricts use of deadly force. But having law in place doesn’t mean that rogue cops will be held accountable for their criminality — especially since prosecutors (who depend on support from cops and police unions) and mayors (who are charged by the public with addressing quality of life issues) have little incentive to root out corruption. This is clear from the fact that Van Dyke is the first Chicago cop to be indicted for murder in 36 years — even as the city has spent millions (including $250 million between 2010 and 2014 alone) settling cases involving officer-involved killings and other forms of police brutality.
Meanwhile there is the reality that police officers often view themselves as bands of brothers who will protect each other even at cost to the integrity of their profession. This was pointed out forcefully by famed police detective Frank Serpico — who carries a bullet in his head as a result of his decision to shed light on the Big Apple’s drug war-driven police corruption in the 1970s — in a piece on Ferguson he wrote last year. Not only will officers do nothing to help weed out the worst (and even merely bad) within their ranks, they will shun (and even endanger) those few brave officers who dare to break the Blue Wall of Silence.
But the culture extends beyond the precinct walls. Police unions such as the Chicago branch of the Fraternal Order of Police as well as affiliates of the International Union of Police Associations work overtime to keep even the worst officers on the job. This includes termination processes that can often last years. In Chicago, for example, rogue officers can lodge several appeals of any finding, challenge the length of a suspension, and even file a grievance against a supervisor for daring to mete out punishment. Before the Second City finally convinced FOP and other police unions to slightly amend the process, it could take at least 1,009 days (or more than three years) for a finding of misconduct to be fully resolved. The pressure police unions also exert on prosecutors dependent on their endorsements all but ensure that few rogue cops will ever face justice. For the police unions, who depend on compulsory dues from cops regardless of their desire for membership, a dollar from a rogue cop is as good as one from a law-abiding one.
For school reformers, all of this sounds all too familiar. It should be. Because the way American criminal justice systems protect and enable rogue cops is similar to how public education keeps laggard and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.
Just like police departments, traditional districts do an abysmal job of evaluating and dismissing low-quality and criminally-minded teachers. Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, evaluated just 40 percent of veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality in a report released four years ago. As with laws governing deadly force, state laws granting near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure all but ensure that teachers remain on the job regardless of performance, while teacher dismissal laws work to keep even the most-abusive teachers in schools. The presence of incompetent school leaders, who have little incentive to remove low-quality teachers (and are sometimes engaged in abusive behavior themselves), often means that they help perpetuate cultures of abuse, educational and otherwise.
The cultism that pervades police departments is also a poison in traditional districts. Like the Blue Wall of Silence, the Thin Chalk Line not only keeps good and great teachers from calling out the incompetents in their midst, it (along with near-lifetime employment) also lead otherwise-honorable teachers to protect the criminally-abusive among them. This was clear in Rochester, N.Y., where teachers at School 19 failed to cooperate in the investigation of Matthew LoMaglio for second-degree sexual misconduct against an eight-year-old boy, then wrote letters to a judge pleading for leniency on his behalf. As in the case of police unions, affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers extend this cultism, both by making it almost impossible to remove removing laggard and criminally abusive teachers, as well as through their roles as the biggest players in school board races and state legislative politics. And like police unions, NEA and AFT affiliates benefit from keeping as many bodies, be they high-quality, incompetent, or criminally abusive, on payrolls.
The good news for school reformers is that they have made some headway on addressing teacher quality issues. From successfully implementation of evaluations using objective test score growth data, to efforts such as the lawsuits inspired by the Vergara v. California (in which a state court judge tossed out the Golden State’s tenure and dismissal laws), to efforts by districts to aggressively evaluate newly-hired teachers before they attain tenure, reformers have made small positive steps in providing all children with the high-quality teachers they deserve.
So reformers should team up with criminal justice reform advocates are share lessons on how to address their parallel issues. The most-important reason of all: Because what happens to our outside of schoolhouse doors also affects them within them. As Dropout Nation has documented over the past few years, American public education has been responsible for the criminalization of youth (especially the lives of black children) that have led to incidents such as Van Dyke’s murder of McDonald. That the nation’s education crisis has also fueled the crises that happen daily on our streets makes reforming criminal justice systems an important consideration in our efforts. No reformer can claim that criminal justice reform and the Black Lives Matter movement that has made it a critical public policy issue over the last year isn’t a matter about which we must be concerned.
Jason Van Dyke may still avoid the human justice he deserves. More importantly, we cannot bring Laquan McDonald back to life. But we can save the lives of more young black men and women like him from the villainous and immoral behavior of rogue cops and bad teachers. We must do this now.
The numbers on the damage done by schools to children in the form of traditional school discipline can sometimes be mind-numbing. Five-point-four million children suspended one or more times every year by America’s public schools. Two hundred sixty thousand more referred to law enforcement and juvenile courts. Ninety-two thousand additional kids arrested. Seventy thousand restrained, either with handcuffs or other devices. Thirty-seven thousand put into seclusion or solitary confinement. At least 28 injured, maimed, or killed by police officers working in schools.
Rarely do we ever put a name or face to these barbaric acts of educational malpractice. But today, Ahmed Mohamed became a more-public example of what we do to children, especially those black and brown. And another example of why the overuse of such harsh approaches to discipline must come to an end.
As many of you know by now, the 14-year-old young man from the Irving Texas, was arrested in school by police after showing his teacher at MacArthur High a digital clock that he built on his own. The teacher believed that Ahmed had built a bomb, and after referring the incident to school leaders, had him arrested and taken down to the suburban Dallas city’s police station, where officers were annoyed that he wouldn’t call the clock anything other than a horological device that it was.
While Ahmed has been released without being charged with a crime — a sensible thing for law enforcement to do since the clock was a clock — Irving’s police chief somehow blames the young man for not being “forthcoming” about building a tool for telling time. Ahmed has also been suspended from school by the Irving Independent School District until tomorrow morning. The district, of course, argues that there’s another side to the story. It also declares that Ahmed wasn’t targeted because he is Muslim and, therefore considered a terrorist. But it won’t say more under the guise of protecting student privacy. [The fact that the district will likely face a well-deserved civil tort from Ahmed’s family also factors into the silence.]
Unlike most children subjected to harsh school discipline, Ahmed has been feted by the likes of the President of the United States and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He has also become the darling of Arab and Muslim activists tired of being the latest of a long line of religious and ethnic minorities subjected to America’s time-honored tradition of state-sanctioned bigotry. Unlike so many children who have (and will be) suspended this year, there may be a happy ending to Ahmed’s predicament.
Yet Ahmed’s story, while different in both the circumstances and its conclusion (so far), isn’t that much different from what happens with so many children in American public education.
Few children are ever suspended for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession. This has been consistently proven over the past two decades by researchers such as Indiana University’s Russ Skiba and Linda Raffaele Mendez of the University of South Florida. More often than not, kids are more-likely to be suspended for non-violent offenses such as disruptive behavior, which are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders depending on how they view the children in their care.
Children from poor and minority backgrounds, especially young black men and women as well as kids condemned to special ed ghettos, are more-likely to be suspended than white peers in regular classrooms. As a team led by Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted earlier this year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 23.2 percent for black middle- and high schoolers in 2013-2014 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education) is three times the 6.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. This, too, has been consistent in analysis of data, this time that of state governments.
As with the overlabeling of young men as special ed cases, a key reason why so many children black and brown have been suspended lies with the perceptions of adults in schools about the kids they are supposed to teach. Recent studies of the perceptions of children held by their teachers echo Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s longstanding point that adults in schools end up deeming kids as unworthy because they think they are destined to end up that way. This is one reason why a team led by University of Pittsburgh researcher John Wallace demonstrated in a 2008 study that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be referred dean’s offices — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended — for the same offenses than white peers.
The overuse of harsh discipline has become even more-problematic thanks to zero-tolerance policies and the expanded presence of police officers in schools driven by the federal Community Oriented Police program and rare incidents of mass shooting such as the Columbine Massacre. The number of cops patrolling schoolhouses increased by 38 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This has resulted in incidents of children being suspended and arrested for writing fictional accounts of hunting dinosaurs, as well as being choked and brain-damaged by school cops for helping to break up fights in hallways.
What has been proven ad nauseam, over the insistence of traditionalists such as the National Education Association’s Texas State Teachers Association, as well as so-called reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is that school discipline as practiced by both traditional districts and far too many charter schools, damages the futures of children. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Because schools are the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies, they are also putting out children, especially the most-vulnerable, into a cycle of cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge.
What has also been clear, thanks to data, is that the overuse of harsh school discipline doesn’t improve school cultures or even help children learn. If anything, the worst-performing schools and districts are the ones that mete out such penalties the most. This shouldn’t be a surprise. High levels of suspensions, seclusions, and restraints are both a sign of the failures of adults within school systems to address underlying learning issues such as literacy as well as a signal that teachers and school leaders have little empathy or concern for the children in their care.
This isn’t to say that every child suspended or arrested is just like Ahmed. Not at all. The reality is that there will be those rare occasions on which a child behaves violently enough to deserve being removed from schools. But we have enough evidence to know that the key word should be rare. Far too often, we are suspending far too many children, and condemning their futures to the economic and social abyss. Ahmed Mohamed’s situation should be a wake-up call to all those who say they care for building brighter futures for children to actually do so. And that can start with ending the overuse of traditional discipline practices that just don’t work for that very purpose.
You can expect few school reformers, especially those in Beltway think tanks, to pay any mind to yesterday’s release of recommendations for criminal justice and school reform by the Ferguson Commission formed last year after the murder of Michael Brown by now-former Police Officer Darren Wilson. After all, there are still far too many in the movement that still don’t understand that it is as important to discuss the issues outside of schoolhouses that are as important (and are affected by) what happens inside them.
But there are plenty of reasons why reformers should pay plenty of close attention to the recommendations in Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equality. One reason? The Ferguson Commission offers some important thoughts, especially when it comes to expanding school choice as well as stemming the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline. Another: Because the approach of tackling both criminal justice and educational issues undertaken by the panel should be done by reformers as part of systemic efforts on the ground.
Plenty of scrutiny has been placed on the law enforcement agencies, courts, and school districts within St. Louis and its 89 immediate suburbs in the year since Brown’s slaying on the streets of Ferguson. Washington Post columnist Radley Balko and others revealed how the patchwork of municipal courts in St. Louis County were exorbitantly fining poor and minority citizens for minor driving offenses (and in many cases, putting them in jail) in order to generate revenue generator for city governments; in some cities, as much as 40 percent of city dollars were generated from putting residents into criminal justice systems. The U.S. Department of Justice further highlighted these problems this past March with its scathing review of the Ferguson Police Department’s racialist policing practices.
Meanwhile the failings of traditional districts within St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs, an issue that has been widely-discussed in Missouri for years, garnered even more national attention. Dropout Nation, in particular, detailed how Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves the community in which Brown was murdered, has been a massive failure mill that metes out-of-school suspensions to one out of every seven black students in regular classrooms and 23 percent of black kids condemned to its special education ghettos.
The continuing battle over whether to allow kids trapped in nearby Normandy‘s traditional district to escape into better-performing districts has also gotten plenty of attention. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who has deservedly earned scorn for his handling of the Brown affair last year, garnered more ire last month when he vetoed a proposal contained in House Bill 42 that would provide intra-district choice to children in Normandy and other failing traditional systems. That move has led to another row between Nixon and his fellow Democrats who backed the measure, including the governor’s longtime nemesis, State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Normandy and Ferguson- Florissant.
Given all the scrutiny, the Ferguson Commission certainly had a lot of ground to cover to get it right. After all, the panel would be deemed a failure if it didn’t offer any concrete solutions. With 17 policymakers, activists, and community leaders (including Brittany Packnett of Teach For America) serving on the main commission and dozens more serving as experts and task force members, the final report could have also been a muddle of compromises worth nothing to everyone. But for the most part, the commission did its job properly and offered solutions worth implementing.
This isn’t to say that the final report doesn’t have flaws. The fact that the Ferguson Commission supported Gov. Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42 — even as it supports intra-district choice (more on that later) is puzzling and unfortunate. The panel’s partial embrace of the “Whole Child” rhetoric championed by traditionalists as a way to avoid overhauling the superclusters of failure, both in St. Louis and nationwide, that sustain their pockets and ideologies, means that it didn’t take on such matters as Missouri’s near-lifetime employment laws that keep low-quality teachers in classrooms of districts such as Ferguson-Florissant and Normandy.
Another major flaw is that the commission didn’t offer any recommendations on expanding high-quality charter schools, which are key to building brighter futures for St. Louis children. This is an especially egregious oversight, especially when you consider that Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes noted last year that children in special ed attending charter schools in the Gateway City (many of whom are black) gained as much as 86 days in math and reading performance over peers in traditional district schools.
Certainly there is plenty of room for improvement. Charters in St. Louis aren’t as high-performing improving reading as counterparts in 26 of the 41 other cities CREDO surveyed. As in Ohio, St. Louis has also proven that the concept of multiple charter school authorizers on its own hasn’t led to high-quality school operations; the ability of low-quality charter school operators to shop for favorable authorizers is a clear problem that must be addressed. But given that far too many kids in St. Louis area districts are stuck in failure mills, the Ferguson Commission should have devoted at least a couple of pages to both arguing for increasing the number of charters and overhauling how they are regulated.
Another flaw lies with the failure of the Ferguson Commission to recommend that Missouri legislators pass a Parent Trigger law that would allow families to take over and overhaul failing schools. Even if school choice fully flourishes in St. Louis and its suburbs, families will still want to have high-quality educational options in their own communities. Just as importantly, many of these families don’t just want to be passive players in education decision-making. They want to be able to structure the curricula, instruction, and school cultures in which their children will spend the most-critical times of their youth. As evidenced in Ferguson-Florissant, where the district’s board is hardly reflective of the black and brown kids who make up the majority of its students, the traditional district model does almost nothing to give families such power.
For the Ferguson Commission, arguing for passage of a Parent Trigger law would not only have been helpful to families, it would have also helped its own goals of transforming criminal justice and other systems that have done damage to St. Louis communities. This is because Parent Trigger laws help families understand that they can transform public education for their children. When mothers know they can build better schools for their kids, they will take on the other challenges outside of schoolhouse doors that also damage futures.
Those flaws aside, A Path Toward Racial Equality offers some important recommendations for transforming public education and criminal justice in St. Louis that can help children thrive into adulthood.
The Ferguson Commission’s call for districts in St. Louis to use restorative justice approaches to school discipline is not only sensible, it aligns with evidence that shows that such approaches do more to improve school cultures and help kids improve behavior than traditional harsh discipline approaches. There is no reason why districts in St. Louis and the rest of Missouri should be overusing suspensions and expulsions. Show-Me State legislators should pass a law restricting districts and other school operators from meting out suspensions to children in kindergarten-through-third grade, as the panel recommends. They should also pass a law that meets the panel’s recommendation of developing a more-comprehensive system for tracking data on suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to juvenile courts.
The creation of early-warning systems that track how children are falling off the path to high school graduation and higher ed completion is also an important recommendation. As Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz has noted, 43 percent of children on the path to dropping out of school can be identified before reaching sixth grade. Missouri state officials, along with school operators in St. Louis, should have long ago come together to develop such systems. More importantly, thanks to existing tools such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (or DIBELS) test, which can be used to identify struggling readers before they reach first grade, this can be don.
Meanwhile the commission’s deserves credit for its forceful call for the state to implement intra-district choice, even though it unfortunately called for Nixon to veto H.B. 42, the best path currently available. Even more impressive is that the panel thought through the infrastructural issues that can make it difficult for families to exercise choice on behalf of their children. Calling for state officials to identify conveniently-located high-quality schools — and ease the transportation burden on families and children — makes plenty of sense. So does its call to restrict the excuses that districts can use to stop kids from transferring into their schools. The commission’s report should spur Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to override Nixon’s veto of H.B. 42. As for the governor? The report should also embarrass him for being so willing to sacrifice the futures of children.
Again, the Ferguson Commission’s report isn’t perfect. Reformers in St. Louis and the rest of the Show-Me State should follow up on the panel’s recommendations with solutions that are more fleshed-out than the body, primarily focused on addressing criminal justice and law enforcement, could make on it own.
At the same time, the Ferguson Commission’s report shows another approach reformers can take to transforming American public education in every municipality and region: Addressing the issues outside schools that are affected by what happens within them.
From the fact that schools account for the second-highest number of referrals to juvenile courts, to the failure of districts to provide all children with the college-preparatory learning they need to be economically and socially successful, schools are the gateways into failure for so many children on their way into adulthood. By teaming up with criminal justice reformers, Black Lives Matter activists, and others, reformers can advance solutions that can improve the conditions in which our children and their families live, learn, and work.
At the same time, by working on the ground with communities, listening to their concerns, and addressing their school and non-school issues reformers can also build the trust and gain the buy-in needed to sustain the overhaul of public education in communities. As your editor notes in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, education is as much a part of politics as criminal justice systems, so reformers must master coalition-building. Given how reformers have been beaten in Newark, and the rancor that remains over the transformation of New Orleans’ public education system, the movement should be more-active in combining the best ideas from within it with the solutions from the communities we are helping.
There’s a lot that reformers can learn from the Ferguson Commission report and its approach to addressing St. Louis’ criminal justice and educational crises. The movement should pick up a copy of the report and come up with some new approaches today.