The School Safety Debate: Mollycoddle No More

Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune, March 18, 2016

A St. Paul Central High School teacher is choked and body-slammed by a student and hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury. A teacher caught between two fighting fifth-grade girls is knocked to the ground with a concussion. Police are compelled to use a chemical irritant to break up a riot at Como Park High School.

Increasingly, some St. Paul Public Schools resemble a war zone. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi has branded the trend of violence “a public health crisis.” Teachers threatened to strike over the dangers they face, and their safety was a pivotal issue in recently concluded contract negotiations. “We are afraid,” one told the Pioneer Press.

Though many–including St. Paul school officials–seem reluctant to acknowledge it, the escalating violence and disorder follow a major change in school disciplinary policies. In recent years, district leaders have increasingly removed consequences for misbehavior, and led kids to believe they can wreak havoc with impunity.

In the words of one teacher: “We have a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable.”

Why have St. Paul district leaders embraced such a head-scratching approach to school discipline? Most parents will tell you that if you eliminate consequences for kids’ bad behavior, you can expect a lot more of it.

It’s common sense.

But we’re not talking about common sense here. We’re talking about a powerful ideology that has gripped the imagination of Twin Cities school officials–and far beyond. That’s the notion of “equity”–a buzzword that is rapidly becoming the all-purpose justification for dubious policies not only in education but in many public arenas.

Equity, in today’s “newspeak,” is not about fairness–that is, the same rules for everyone. It means quite the opposite. The equity crusade regards people–not as individuals responsible for their own conduct–but, first and foremost, as members of racial and ethnic groups. If one group’s outcomes on social measures are not identical to all of the others’, the cause is presumed to be discrimination and the proper response to be government policies designed to ensure equal statistical results.

The dilemma for St. Paul Public Schools leaders is that the district’s black students are proportionately disciplined and suspended at much higher rates than students of other racial groups.

In 2010-11, for example, 15 percent of the district’s black students were suspended at least once–five times more than white students. This racial differential mirrors those in schools across the Twin Cities and throughout the nation.

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Most suspensions involve “largely subjective” student behaviors such as “defiance, disrespect and disruption,” St. Paul superintendent Valeria Silva told the Star Tribune in 2012. To prevent bias, teachers must learn “a true appreciation” of their students’ cultural “differences” and how these can “impact interactions in the classroom,” she said.

Since 2010, the district has spent almost $2 million on “white privilege” and “cultural competency” training for teachers. In addition, it has shelled out millions of dollars for “positive behavior” training, an anti-suspension behavior modification program.

Despite these efforts, the district’s racial discipline gap has remained stubbornly wide. So several years ago, St. Paul school leaders adopted what must have seemed a foolproof way to eliminate statistical disparities. They lowered behavior standards and, in many cases, essentially abandoned meaningful penalties.

For example, in 2012, the district dropped “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense. Often, kids who misbehave chat briefly with a “behavior specialist” or are simply moved to another classroom or school where they are likely to misbehave again.

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{snip} Longtime Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear that his department considered racial differences in discipline rates “simply unacceptable” and a violation of “the principle of equity.”

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But wait. The Obama administration’s data reveal that white boys’ suspension rate is more than twice that of Asian and Pacific Islander boys. If you follow “equity” logic, this must be because teachers are prejudiced against white boys. But isn’t it more likely that white boys’ rate is higher because they misbehave more often than their Asian peers?

That appears to be the case with black students–their discipline rate is higher than other students’ because, on average, they misbehave more. In fact, a major 2014 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that the racial gap in suspensions is “completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.”

That problem behavior can manifest itself in other ways. Nationally, for example, young black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit homicide at 10 times the rate of white and Hispanics of the same ages combined.

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Both school misconduct and criminal behavior likely stem from the same source–the lack of impulse control and socialization that can result from chaotic family life. Tragically, the problem we confront is not so much a “school-to-prison” pipeline as a “home-to-prison” pipeline.

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