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Obama Administration Hunts Phantom Classroom Racism

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Editors' note: this piece has been adapted from the summer issue of City Journal.

In March 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that his department was “going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement” in the nation’s schools. What was the pervasive racial injustice that led Mr. Duncan to redouble such efforts? Black elementary and high school students are three and a half times more likely to get suspended or expelled than their white peers, according to federal data.


And so the Departments of Education and Justice have launched a campaign against disproportionate minority discipline rates, which show up in virtually every school district with significant numbers of black and Hispanic students. The possibility that students’ behavior drives those rates lies outside the Obama administration’s conceptual universe. The theory behind this school discipline push is what Obama officials and civil rights advocates call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” According to this conceit, harsh discipline practices—above all, suspensions— strip minority students of classroom time, causing them to learn less, drop out of school, and eventually land in prison.

The feds have reached their conclusions, however, without answering the obvious question: Are black students suspended more often because they misbehave more? Arne Duncan, of all people, should be aware of inner-city students’ self-discipline problems, having headed the Chicago school system before becoming secretary of education. Chicago’s minority youth murder one another with abandon. Since 2008, more than 530 people under the age of 21 have been killed in the city, mostly by their peers, according to the Chicago Reporter; virtually all the perpetrators were black or Hispanic.

Nationally, the picture is no better. The homicide rate among males between the ages of 14 and 17 is nearly ten times higher for blacks than for whites and Hispanics combined. Such data make no impact on the Obama administration and its orbiting advocates, who apparently believe that the lack of self-control and socialization that results in this disproportionate criminal violence does not manifest itself in classroom comportment as well.

Like school districts across the county, the St. Paul, Minnesota, public school system has been on a mission to lower the black suspension rate, following complaints by local activists and black parents. The district has sent its staff to $350,000 worth of “cultural-proficiency” training, where they learned to “examine the presence and role of Whiteness.” The system spent another $2 million or so to implement an anti-suspension behavioral-modification program embraced by the Obama administration.

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.

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