Are black and Latino students in New York City schools disciplined at a higher rate than their classmates because of their ethnicity, or because they break the rules more often as a whole?
That’s a question on which good people may differ, and one the city may find itself having to address head-on sooner rather than later, because of new federal guidelines issued last week.
The guidelines seek to end racial disparities in discipline, a worthy goal, but how exactly that will be done and what the impact will be in the actual classroom is yet to be seen. Issued jointly by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, and properly known as the Federal School Discipline Guidance, the directives don’t exactly carry the force of law, but the threat of legal action over their supposed violation lies beneath the surface.
According to the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which fights against what it sees as discriminatory disciplinary policies, “students, parents and educators in the coalition will use this federal Guidance to continue urging changes to our schools’ discipline codes and practices.”
Urging changes sounds good; that’s what advocates do, and it may be that some changes are warranted. But it’s the next line in the nationwide group’s statement that might get you worried: “This will tell school boards and administrators that failure to change puts them at greater risk for civil rights complaints and investigations.”
Whoa. Here we go again. Sounds like a case for U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin. You know, the jurist who determined that the Police Department stops and frisks blacks and Hispanics more often than white people out of racial animus, ignoring the fact that blacks and Hispanics together commit, and are the victims of, more than 90 percent of violent crimes in the city.
Scheindlin’s ruling was overturned of course, and she was dismissed from the case over her lack of impartiality. But the case is still ongoing and could be for years. We hope that would not happen with any case brought against the city over whatever “disparate impacts” school discipline is found to have on minority students.
On the other hand, if it is found that minorities are disciplined more harshly than white students for the same infractions, that needs to change immediately. It’s just hard to believe that happens often in a liberal city such as New York that takes pride in its ethnic diversity, under the last mayor as much as the new one.
The new guidelines do contain some good elements. For one, they urge alternatives to harsh actions such as suspension and expulsion, which have gotten out of hand in recent years. Students are kicked out of school for infractions that used to result in much more reasonable punishments. Leave race out of the equation, and we’re all for adding more common sense to the “zero tolerance” policies that have often brought “zero intelligence” along for the ride. Think of the 7-year-old in Maryland who was suspended for supposedly chewing a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun (he says it was supposed to be a mountain like the one he had just drawn). Ridiculous.
The guidelines also make recommendations on promoting a positive climate in school and giving students and parents more say in developing disciplinary policies. Those both sound worthwhile.
It will take time to see what impact the new guidelines have on city schools. We just hope the result will be an affirmation that students should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.