Aaron Benner, a fifth-grade teacher in St. Paul, scoffs at the notion that minority students are being unfairly targeted for discipline. “Anyone in his right mind knows that these [disciplined] students are extremely disruptive,” he says. He overheard a fifth-grade boy use extremely foul language to threaten a girl. (“I wanted to throw him against the locker,” Mr. Benner recalls.) The boy’s teacher told him that she felt powerless to punish the misbehavior.
“This will be one of my black men who ends up in prison after raping a woman,” he observes. Racist? Many would so characterize the comment. But Mr. Benner is black himself—and fed up with the excuses for black misbehavior. “They’re trying to pull one over on us. Black folks are drinking the Kool-Aid; this ‘let-them-clown’ philosophy could have been devised by the KKK.”
The research base for the Obama administration’s claim that minority students receive harsher punishment than whites for “the same or similar infractions” is laughably weak. None of the studies alleging disproportionate discipline actually observed students’ behavior or examined students’ full disciplinary histories, including classroom interactions and warnings, teacher and counselor observations, and efforts at informal resolution that preceded more formal measures. A principal might have had two dozen conversations with a student before deciding to suspend him; none of those conversations would have been included in the researchers’ models.
Disproportionate rates of minority discipline were already ending school officials’ careers before the feds stepped in. Now that Washington has entered the fray, the pressure to bring those rates into alignment has grown even more intense. In Christina, Delaware, one of the districts under Education Department investigation, a six-year-old white boy faced expulsion in 2009 for bringing to school a Cub Scout tool (“a combination of folding fork, knife, and spoon,” reported a local TV station) with which to eat his pudding. After public outcry, the district removed kindergarten and first-grade students from its zero-tolerance policy for weapons. Also in 2009, however, the Christina school district expelled an 11-year-old black girl after a box-cutter fell out of her jacket pocket. The girl said that she had no idea how the box cutter had got there, according to Wilmington’s News Journal. The U.S. Department of Education presumably chose Christina to investigate because it agrees with the girl’s mother, who brought a complaint to the Delaware Human Relations Commission, that only racism can explain why a school would distinguish a six-year-old’s possession of an improvised pudding spoon from an 11-year-old’s possession of a box cutter. Might the school officials know something that federal bureaucrats do not regarding the girl’s previous run-ins with authority and the likelihood that she had no knowledge of the box cutter? Not in the eyes of a Washington paper-pusher, who takes his own omniscience as a given.
“Teachers are petrified to discipline students,” says a high school science teacher in Queens, New York, who blogs under the name “Chaz.” Students will tell a teacher to shut up or curse him when asked to open their notebooks, but the teacher’s supervisors will look the other way. The amount of insubordination now tolerated in New York schools is destroying them, says a former head of discipline for the city’s school system. Yet in June of this year, the schools chancellor proposed to officially ban suspensions for all but the most extreme infractions. Teachers would no longer be allowed to remove from class students who disrupted their fellow students’ ability to learn, engaged in obscene behavior, or were insubordinate. Advocates and the city council speaker, who is the leading mayoral candidate, complained that the changes did not go far enough.
The clear losers in all of this are children. Protecting well-behaved students’ ability to learn is a school’s highest obligation, and it is violated when teachers lose the option of removing chronically disruptive students from class. Nor does keeping those unruly students in class do them any favors. School is the last chance to socialize a student who repeatedly curses his teacher, say, since his parent is obviously failing at the job. Eliminate serious consequences for bad behavior, and you are sending a child into the world who has learned precisely the opposite of what he needs to know about life.
Though Barack Obama broached the taboo topic of personal responsibility on the 2008 campaign trail, now that he’s in the White House, he and his underlings have maintained a resolute silence on the behavioral components of inequality. Mr. Duncan’s public pronouncements have avoided any mention of what students and parents can do for themselves, such as paying attention in class, respecting your teacher, and studying, or monitoring your child’s attendance, homework, and comportment. Such an exclusive emphasis on victimhood plays well with Mr. Obama’s base, but it seriously distorts reality.