The Obama administration has announced new federal guidelines to decrease the racial disparity in school suspensions, expulsions and arrests.
The guidelines were laid out by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder in Baltimore last week. The new recommendations ask schools to create a climate with high expectations and rewards for good behavior, keep tabs on data concerning disciplinary actions, create student codes of conduct that spell out specific punishments for specific infractions, offer staff training on conflict resolution, provide adequate counselors and social workers and define appropriate roles for police on campus.
While some express concern that the new guidelines will force schools to change disciplinary measures they say have become standard practice and are working, many are taking the opportunity to focus on why disparities exist and how to tackle the large source of the problems.
According to statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights division in a survey of school systems with more than 50,000 students enrolled in the 2009-10 school year, African-American students represented 24 percent of enrollment but 35 percent of arrests for in-school infractions. White students accounted for 31 percent of enrollment and 21 percent of arrests. For Hispanic students, there was less of a disparity in arrests. They accounted for 34 percent of enrollment and 37 percent of arrests.
Some teachers were not surprised by those statistics.
“As much as I hate to say it, the behavior issues are really more a problem with [minority students],” one Queens high school teacher confessed.
Another high school teacher in the borough said suspensions and other forms of discipline don’t seem to be helping, regardless of race.
“They come back and their behavior doesn’t change. Sometimes it just gets worse,” she explained. “It really comes from outside of school. Whatever we’re doing now, it’s not working.”
One problem many teachers have pointed out is that black and Latino students in the city typically come from poorer neighborhoods with complex family situations that influence their behavior and attend schools that lack the adequate number of guidance counselors to deal with problem students — a concern shared by both teachers and at least one elected official.
“Until we address some of those issues, we still continue to see some of this negative behavior going on,” said Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), a former teacher who said socioeconomic issues are the primary reason for bad behavior in schools.
He noted that poorer students, who are often black and Hispanic, tend to feel a necessity to act tougher, which can lead to bad behavior.
Dromm said there is definitely an obvious disparity, and the federal study notes that black students without disabilities are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white peers for the same infraction.
“We have seen a large increase in the number of students, particularly black and Latino and those with individualized education programs, being suspended from schools, and sometimes for minor infractions,” he said.
He blamed zero-tolerance policies which often bring harsh punishments against first-time offenders. Dromm noted a story of a girl who was suspended after threatening a teacher. She had never before been in trouble.
Holder held the same opinion.
“Too often, so-called zero-tolerance policies, however well-intentioned they might be, make students feel unwelcome in their own schools; they disrupt the learning process,” Holder said in Baltimore. “And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people, increasing their likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
The guidance counselor issue looms large for many. Several high school teachers said their schools lack an adequate number of guidance counselors. In some schools the ratio between counselor and student is as large as 1 to 400.
“I would tend to lean more to the issues dealing with not enough guidance counselors,” said Kenneth Cohen, regional director of the NAACP’s New York State conference, who called the issue “sensitive” to many communities. “You need a small army to deal with all the students in a school.”
Cohen noted that often students who act out do so for a number of different reasons, from issues at home or outside school to boredom in class
“It’s going to take a lot more investigation,” he said. “When they take a strong look at it, there is going to be various different reasons.”
Cohen suggested another important step would be for teachers and school staff to become more integrated into the communities the students are coming from.
“One way to combat this is to get to know parents better and interact in the community,” he said. “I’m not saying disciplinary action shouldn’t be taken, but there has to be a new way.”
In the classroom, the punishment situation is something obscure, according to one high school teacher.
“There are no specific punishments for specific situations,” said the teacher, who did not want to be identified but teaches at a school with a high minority population. “Really it’s up to the teacher giving the punishment and there are sometimes situations where one student gets one punishment for one thing and someone else gets a different punishment for the same violation. Perhaps a list of standard punishments would help.”