For parents such as John Jackson Jr., the discipline gap between white and black students in the Milwaukee area is so wide, you couldn’t jump over it with rockets in your shoes.
His two children, Janay and Jarred, just finished their sixth—and ninth-grade years in the Shorewood School District. Neither has been disciplined, but Jackson said that every day, chances are good that someone just like them—young, black and possibly innocent—is.
“I think it’s very unfair,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s changing.”
In schools in the five-county Milwaukee area, black students consistently have been suspended disproportionately more than their enrollment while white students have been suspended less, according to a Journal Sentinel analysis of state discipline data from the 1998-’99 school year to the 2003-’04 school year, the most recent year available.
In 1999, black students constituted about 6.5% of enrollment in suburban schools but received nearly 22% of all suspensions. In 2004, they accounted for slightly more of the enrollment—7%—but, at almost 25%, for an even greater share of suspensions.
White students, by comparison, made up about 87% of enrollment in the suburbs in 1999 and accounted for relatively fewer suspensions—about 67%. That gap grew slightly in 2004, when white enrollment dropped to about 84% and white suspensions fell even further to almost 62%.
The gap is hardly news to Milwaukee-area educators, who, like their peers across the country, have struggled to make sense of it. What’s more difficult to understand, they said, is why the gap exists and how to cinch it up.
“This isn’t just a problem here; it’s a problem everywhere,” said Howard Fuller, a former MPS superintendent who is a professor at Marquette University. “The question needs to be asked: Is there something about the way we’re operating?”
Others said the reason is cultural. Often, teachers are leery of the louder, more active styles of communication that characterize some black teens, experts and officials said. Teachers might interpret play-fighting as real fighting or yelling as disrespect. “Sometimes, a group of students making a lot of noise is just being noisy,” said Whitefish Bay Superintendent James Rickabaugh. “Sometimes, we overreact to that.”
Some parents have a more simple explanation: Black students are being suspended more often simply because they are black.
“If there’s a white kid, he’d just go to the principal’s office,” said Lionell Perry Jr., a Milwaukee parent who has sent four children to suburban schools through the Chapter 220 program. “If an African-American student does the same identical thing, he’d be sent home.”