To say that I am indignant about yesterday’s ruling by a St. Louis County grand jury to not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown is an understatement. From the moment Brown was shot senselessly by Wilson with his body left on the ground for four-and-a-half hours, to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s windy and often defensive announcement of how his office’s unusual presentation of the evidence ultimately led to a delivery of no-bill on five different counts, the case was another reminder that America still struggles with addressing the racial bigotry that is this nation’s Original Sin.
Yet for school reformers, the events in Ferguson offer new opportunities to keep our young black men alive and on the path to lifelong success. This starts by tackling one of the most-pernicious of the racialist policies and practices that remain in American public education: The overuse of harsh school discipline that condemns the futures of so many.
Your editor can go through all the reasons why so many black men and women are saddened, angered, horrified, and disappointed by the Wilson’s non-indictment. Sadness because Brown’s life was senselessly snuffed out just days after he graduated from Normandy High School, his body allowed to sit on the street for nearly five hours before finally being removed. Anger because no justice at all will be sought for Brown; the fact that grand juries fail to indict one-hundredth of one percent of the time in federal cases (and, given that prosecutors at state and local levels rarely have to bring cases to grand juries at all, even less often) makes the failure to bring this case to a jury trial even more shocking. Horrifying because the Brown case is just one serves as another reminder that America has a long history of disregarding — and even sanctioning — racially-motivated murders of young black men; while Wilson’s action may not have been motivated by race (which, given his characterization of Brown as looking like a “demon” is quite unlikely), the growing evidence that police officers are far more-likely to shoot at unarmed black men than any other group casts an especially harsh light on his slaying of Brown three months ago. [Update: Wilson’s statement to an ABC News reporter that he doesn’t regret shooting Brown makes your editor wonder how someone can feel so untroubled about taking an innocent life. May God disturb Wilson’s conscience, and then save him from the torment that will soon come his way.]
Then there is the disappointment, especially among black mothers and fathers. Disappointment about the fact that from the moment Brown encountered Wilson, his life and his body were utterly demeaned by law enforcement officials, as well as put on trial by politicians more-concerned about being supportive of police officers than about an innocent young life. Dismay over the mistreatment of Brown’s mother and father during their time of undeniable grief. Disgust over the fact that even now, another generation of white people continue to fail to understand how centuries of bigotry, state-sanctioned and otherwise, have fostered the debasement of black lives. Dumbfounded that justice always seems to be visited upon those whose skins aren’t dark or brown, while the murders of those who are seem to never be worthy of it. At these moments, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future for our black children.
But as we may be, we must also remember these things: That when black people fight vigilantly for their civil rights, they can help bend the arc of history toward progress, and that out of tragedy can emerge activism and grassroots efforts that can save lives and communities. This is what is happening in Ferguson now. Each day since his death, protestors in the St. Louis suburb and elsewhere over his slaying has continually brought attention to how the militarization of police departments aided by the federal government have exacerbated the long history of antagonistic treatment of blacks by law enforcement that has long been a feature of American life. The efforts of teachers to pull together the Ferguson Syllabus is helping kids gain understanding of civic life in this country that can help address racialism. Because of what has happened in Ferguson, we now have new leaders and voices for social progress such as St. Louis city councilman Antonio French and Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.
What we are seeing now is the second prong of the latest battle for civil rights, one that has the transformation of American public education at its center, but must also include what former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff calls school reform in totality. This means addressing how the nation’s education crisis fuels the social ills that condemn the futures of our children, especially those from black, Latino, and Native households. This is where one aspect of systemic reform becomes especially important: Ending the overuse of the harshest school discipline.
As Dropout Nation noted back in August, the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which serves this St. Louis suburb, exemplifies how districts throughout the country harm the futures of black children through the use of suspensions and other harsh discipline for nonviolent matters that are better off settled through other means. During the 2011-2012 school year, Ferguson-Florissant meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students versus 4.9 percent of white students, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. None of the suspensions were for violent acts, according to data from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; as typical throughout the rest of the country, most suspensions were for disruptive behavior, tardiness to class, and truancy, all matters better-handled through means that actually help kids understand the consequences of their behaviors. Black kids attending Ferguson-Florissant schools were more-likely to be suspended than either their white peers in the district. They were also more-likely to be subjected to harsh discipline than be a victim of violent crimes in their communities.
Harsh discipline is meted out even more punitively on black children condemned to Ferguson-Florissant’s special ed ghettos. The district meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 23 percent of black special ed students, a rate 10 percentage points higher than the (also outrageous) 14 percent for white peers in those ghettos. Even worse, the out-of-school suspension rates for Ferguson-Florissant’s black special ed students was higher than nearby St. Louis’ 11.5 percent out-of-school suspension rate for such students.
This is not unusual. As Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA noted last year in his review of suspension and expulsion data, the out-of-school suspension rate of 24.3 percent in 2009-2010 (based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education before earlier this year) is three times the 7.1 percent out-of-school suspension rate for white peers. Even worse, the gap in suspension rates has increased over the past three decades; back in 1972-1973, the out-of-school suspension rate of 11.8 percent for black secondary school students was only double the six percent rate for white peers.
At the heart of the overuse of suspensions, both in Ferguson-Florissant as well as across the nation, is the reality that adults in schools often use harsh discipline as easy buttons instead of addressing the underlying issues behind the misbehavior of children. The biggest culprit of all: The struggles children have with their literacy, and the failures of American public education to provide them with the intensive reading remediation they need (as well as high-quality reading instruction and curricula) so they can succeed.
As Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles of Stanford University determined in a 2006 study, kids who are functionally illiterate in third grade end up becoming discipline problems by fifth. This fact was further borne out in a 2011 study by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Given that just 47.1 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s fourth-graders reading at or below basic proficiency on the reading portion of the Show-Me State’s battery of standardized tests, it isn’t shocking that the district (along with other failing school operators) overuse suspensions instead of dealing with underlying literacy issues.
As researchers such as Russ Skiba have demonstrated over the past three decades, the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline is academic, economic and social failure for kids who are acting out because of the failure to address their learning issues. 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. At the same time, the consequences extend beyond schoolhouse doors. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of some police officers in cities such as Ferguson — and the evil they have shown toward the black people who live their and pay their wages — is mirrored by the unwillingness of those working within its schools to provide all kids with high-quality education.
Thanks to the Obama Administration’s efforts on addressing school discipline — including investigations into practices by districts such as Minneapolis, as well as the guidance it issued earlier this year — reformers have opportunity to reduce suspensions for the long haul by addressing literacy curricula and instruction. This can start in Ferguson-Florissant by forcing the district to implement intensive reading remediation, especially in the early grades when discipline issues can be headed off, as well as leveraging approaches such as Response to Intervention to identify kids struggling with literacy. Wang and Algozzine demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach (when paired with an approach called Behavior Instruction in the Total School) in a 2012 study funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Implementing restorative justice programs that focus on teaching kids how their behaviors affect themselves and their fellow classmates is also critical. Black school leaders and teachers, who often work in the highest-suspending districts in the country, should take the lead on transforming how we discipline kids (as well as call out colleagues who continue these failed practices); anything other than that is an abject abandoning of our responsibility to all children, especially those who are from our backgrounds.
This isn’t just a matter for traditional districts alone. As Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard and others have pointed out, public charter schools have engaged in overly harsh school discipline practices for far too long, justifying them as part of developing a culture of no excuses that are geared toward fostering school learning. [Sadly, reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland have also justified such shoddy thinking.] But as I noted last year in my criticism of Success Academy cofounder Eva Moskowitz’s justification of her charter school operation’s overuse of suspensions, the evidence has been proven long ago that overusing suspensions doesn’t lead to improvements in student achievement. If anything, because of such overuse, it allows opponents of school choice to claim that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to efforts in providing kids with high-quality education. Reformers cannot defend failed policies and practices for which we would call out traditional districts.
But addressing school discipline goes beyond the practices of teachers and school leaders within schoolhouses.
As Dropout Nation as consistently noted, districts bring law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Schools account 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. When districts refer kids into juvenile courts unequipped to help them, our most-vulnerable children are put into a cycle of cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Even worse, poor and minority children regardless of whether they end up in the juvenile justice system end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured.
There’s also the fact that districts have also become as mired in the militarization of law enforcement as police departments in their communities. This is because districts, especially those in big cities, have launched their own police agencies even as youth crime has been on a three decade-long decline. 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. The NAACP and Texas Appleseed rightfully raised this issue back in September when they issued a letter to the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency complaining how the federal government’s move to hand over military-grade weapons to districts such as Los Angeles Unified was exacerbating arrests of students.
There is no reason why a district such as Compton Unified arms police officers with AR-15 rifles or why L.A. Unified’s police division had grenades in its arsenal. In fact, there is no good reason why traditional districts should operate police departments in the first place. All that does is transform schools into virtual jails where being a child is criminalized instead of communities where a kid is nurtured by high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula. As reformers, we must stand up and work to pass state laws that put an end to the ability of districts to launch their own law enforcement agencies, as well as work to force districts to dispense with juvenile justice referrals and arrests for better approaches to dealing with the children they serve.
By tackling all aspects of school discipline, along with other systemic reform efforts, we are doing honor to the life of Michael Brown and his family, as well as saving the lives of young men and women who deserve better. Darren Wilson may have escaped human justice (even as he will face God’s verdict). But school reformers can help tackle the legacy of racialism that lingers within American public education as well as on the streets where our children live.