Last April, UCLA’s Civil Right Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles (yes, it has a bilingual name) released a report called Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School.
The report, with findings the authors called “deeply disturbing” and “shocking,” analyzed student suspension data from 7,000 school districts representing about 85 percent of the nation’s public-school students. Students are being suspended or expelled at nearly double the 1974 rate, and black students are suspended more than three times as often as white students. In some districts, the report notes, as many as half of all black students are suspended during their high-school years.
“Most suspensions are for minor or vague infractions . . . this is clearly an unsound educational policy,” wrote co-author Daniel Losen. “The numbers in our report indicate an absolute crisis.”
As if on cue, “experts” in the government, think tanks, so-called civil rights foundations, and institutions of higher learning—where most education theory originates—immediately expressed outrage, saying suspension policies were “racist” and demanding immediate change.
Maisie Chin, the executive director of Community Asset Development Re-defining Education, based in Los Angeles, claimed that the report “helps the public see suspensions and the disproportionate ways in which they are handed out as a systemic problem.”
“These numbers show clear and consistent racial and ethnic disparities in suspensions,” said John H. Jackson, the president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Any entity not serious about addressing this [problem] becomes a co-conspirator in the demise of these children.”
The Huffington Post, unbelievably, reported that students are being suspended from school for “talking back to a teacher, cursing, walking into class late or even eye rolling.” Eye rolling?
Not one of the reports I read in major newspapers included an interview with a teacher. We teachers are the people who work day-to-day on the front lines, and who must suffer the consequences of feel-good policies set by people who do not work in schools.
Teachers are already under the gun not to discipline too many blacks or Hispanics, and are already feeling the consequences of not being able to exclude willfully disruptive students. Back in 2007, the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted yet another district-wide discipline policy—this one a mere 14 pages—to “ensure that equitable school-based practices are implemented in a fair, non-discriminatory and culturally responsive manner.” We were supposed to use “positive interventions and means of correction other than suspension, transfer or expulsion” (emphasis in original).
“Positive reinforcement” does not change the behavior of disruptive students. I’m not sure suspension really does either, but none of us teachers cares: it is a way to get the kid the hell out of our classrooms so we can have a brief moment of peace. I should note that teachers cannot suspend students from school—only administrators can do that—but we can suspend students from our classrooms.
To do that we have to follow a bothersome protocol of writing up in detail exactly what the student said or did, while trying to keep the other 40-plus students “engaged in learning.” We have to include the race of the student on suspension forms, and anyone who suspends more than a handful of students a year is seen as unable to control a class. All this will be noted on evaluations.
Just getting an angry student out the door is usually difficult. Blacks and some Hispanics have hair-trigger, explosive tempers, which make them very dangerous. Students who are disruptive want to “diss” their teachers and make as much trouble for other school personnel as possible, and they want an audience. Many absolutely refuse to leave—calls to security go unheeded and calls to the office are often unanswered. Plenty of students have to be dragged away cursing and screaming.
And then the teacher has to notify the principal, and then call an often absent or utterly uninterested parent to arrange a parent conference.
So, for once, let’s let teachers sound off on these new policies of trying to keep everyone in class no matter what.
I first spoke with an old colleague with 30 years experience teaching 9th-grade students in a large, majority-black and -Hispanic urban high school with rock-bottom test scores and an average graduation rate of 50 percent. “How is the new ‘Supportive School Discipline Initiative Policy’ working out?” I asked.
“Not well at all,” she began. “A few days ago in a class of 43 Algebra I students, I suddenly noticed a two-inch flame light up in the back of the room. I walked back to see what was going on and the flame shot up again. I could see it was coming from a Bic lighter a student was trying to use to light a pipe—the type used to smoke crack.
“I sent the student to the office with a brief referral describing the circumstances only to have the student return the next day with a note from the office explaining that the kid was in his ‘fifth round of drug rehab’ and was trying to ‘get clean.’ ”
“Last week,” she continued, “a student in chemistry lab peed into a beaker in full view of his lab partners and other students. The teacher sent the kid and the beaker to the office, only to have the kid return promptly—sans beaker—with a note from the office stating that the ‘problem has been taken care of.’ ”
Five years ago, a student who lit a drug pipe in class would have been suspended, and at a minimum sent to an alternative school; the student who relieved himself into a beaker would also have been suspended, pending a full psychological evaluation. There would have been a call to the Department of Health, and meetings with parents, principal, counselors and administrators. These days, terrible conduct has become unremarkable, even normalized. Teachers have no choice but to let students back into class and act as if nothing unusual happened. Other students learn that behavior of this kind has no repercussions and is apparently acceptable.
I asked a former colleague, who now works as an administrator in a large, majority black/Hispanic high school, about discipline policies. “Student behavior has coarsened,” he said. “All day, I hear every obscenity imaginable. Kids have also taken to wearing pajama bottoms, bedroom slippers, or flip-flops. They wear T-shirts with images of marijuana leaves, pro-drug messages, photos of automatic weapons, or even the F-word printed on them. We used to make students wearing such forbidden attire turn the T-shirt inside out or change into one we kept in the office. If the kid refused, we sent him home. No longer; it’s simply not worth it to fill out the reams of paperwork required, and parents more than likely will defend their children, and ask what ‘our problem’ is.
“We used to round up students who loitered around the campus all day instead of attending class, and herd them back into classrooms. No longer. It’s far easier to let the miscreants hang out on the far side of the PE field than to force them back into class, where the teacher is likely to send them to the office for disruption anyway—meaning more paperwork. This way, at least the students are on campus and we can count them present for state ADA money.”
(ADA stands for “Average Daily Attendance.” It is that number, rather than total enrollment, that determines how much money the school district gets from the state.)
“Last week, a female student entered my office and said: ‘Mr. T, do you know they’re doing heroin on the PE field now? A boy invited me out for periods 4 and 5 to use heroin with him and the other kids out there. He said he’d show me how.’ ”
I asked another former colleague who used to teach special-education students. “I recently quit after 20 years,” he said. “I handed in my resignation, walked out the front door, drove out of the parking lot, and didn’t look back. The school called me repeatedly begging me to return, but I’d had enough and I don’t regret my decision.
“I was tired of uneducated, barely literate parents coming down to the school to dictate to me how I was going to do my job and what I was and was not to do in my classroom. Parents expected me to perform miracles with their profoundly retarded children, and refused consent for them to take behavior-moderating drugs during school hours—drugs that keep violent, explosive students at least manageable. Without these drugs, some of these students are dangerous. We know why parents don’t want their kids to be medicated at school. It’s so they can keep the medicine at home and give the kids a double dose in the afternoon—because the parents can’t manage them either.
“Many of these parents show up with either a local advocate [see below] or a sue-happy lawyer. Parents sue without hesitation if their plan isn’t followed to the letter or if the outcome isn’t what they want. There are many such lawsuits against the school district, and parents win about 70 percent of them. Lately, they’ve taken to suing us individually and personally; I know an administrator who has a lien against her house because of such a lawsuit.
(“Local advocates” are loudmouths with little education, who seem to be on-call 24 hours a day to come in with and “stand up for” blacks or Hispanics against “institutionally racist” organizations, such as the local school. They may be other parents, ministers, or advocates from local race-based organizations. Some are running for local office or even the school board. They are attention-seekers, who want to get their names in the papers, agitate “for their people,” and prove their “racial cred.” They are some of the nastiest folks I have ever met, and Asians are getting in on the act too.)
“Parents have all the rights; we have none. But the worst of it is this: Students like the ones I had 10 years ago have now been mainstreamed into regular classrooms, and the students I get now are exactly like the ones I used to work with in a locked-down psychiatric hospital. No, I don’t regret my decision to quit.”
Teaching is already an uphill battle. Even when students genuinely want to learn, many are struggling because of low IQs. The textbooks are full of propaganda. And on top of this we have policies that prevent us from controlling disruptive students because we must correct those racially “skewed” discipline statistics. The theory is that we have a secret, racist desire is to keep the Hispanic/black students in trouble, suspended and out of school, and deprive them of an education.
It should go without saying but I will say it anyway: Blacks and Hispanics are suspended more often than whites and Asians for the same reason boys are suspended more often than girls: They cause more trouble. For at least the last 10 years, teachers have avoided disciplining black students even for egregious behavior because they know blacks will complain and that teachers will be accused of “racism.”
Every new report on race differences in suspension rates means more pressure on teachers. It means we have to let thugs get away with being thugs. The better-behaved children see this and start acting like thugs, too. Everyone’s education suffers. More good teachers give up and leave the district—and are replaced with incompetents.
I will close with another authentic anecdote. An administrator at a typical inner-city Los Angeles high school spots a student wandering around on the PE fields by himself. The administrator walks over and says, “Excuse me, what are you doing here?”
The student knows he can get away with just about anything. “I’m here to hang out and get high,” he says.
With today’s asinine, why-are-we-punishing-innocent-students policies, there is no way to discipline the student. There is no way to convince his parents he is in the wrong. There is no point in shanghaiing him back into a classroom where he will just cause trouble.
The administrator shrugs. “Very well. Carry on.”