Editor’s note: The following piece originally appeared at City Journal. It is reprinted here with permission.
Earlier in the month, my high-school alma mater in the prosperous Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia went viral. A video of a student brawl injuring four security officers and eight teachers appeared on YouTube, bolstering long-whispered rumors of the district’s decline. Four students were taken into custody; one of them, 18 and charged as an adult for four counts of aggravated assault, is still in jail as I write. All four of the students were black females.
I haven’t visited Cheltenham High since I graduated in the faraway American Graffiti era, but I ventured back for a packed emergency community meeting about the May 4 events. In addition to memories, I found a stark illustration of the nation’s evasions about racial gaps in education.
It became clear almost immediately that the brawl was no one-off. “Really we have experienced [this kind of fight] our entire high-school career,” said the student council president, the first speaker lined up at the audience mics. “We complained. We never got any response. We were told all disputes were personal and the school was safe. Why now?” she asked tearfully. “Because a video of it was leaked to the media?” Students described rape threats, stalking, kids sent back to classrooms after menacing teachers or classmates, teachers walking past fighting kids, security guards looking the other way. The problems, students insisted, weren’t limited to the high school; they remembered thuggery in middle and even elementary school, too.
There was no way to chalk up these complaints to adolescent theatrics. A February survey of CHS teachers had already revealed a school that resembled Lord of the Flies. Cursing, yelling students roamed the halls, pushing, shoving, ramming each other into walls, sometimes “accidentally” colliding with teachers. Thirty-six out of 79 teachers surveyed believed that they were unsafe in the hallways, and those who didn’t acknowledged either being big enough to stare down students or practiced at minding their own business. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t do anything,” “F*** off, crazy old motherf***er,” were some of the choice rejoinders they told of hearing. “If I feel uncomfortable by the language and noise level a student displays,” one teacher wrote, “I can 1) address it and open myself up to insubordination and/or a verbal retaliation for which no consequences will be delivered or I can 2) choose to ignore it which I struggle with ethically because then I feel complicit. It’s a complete ‘no-win,’ and I battle this every day.”
What could not be said out loud was that the problem kids were all black, though the district superintendent did delicately indicate that the school’s trouble is “racialized.” Like many inner suburbs, once predominantly white Cheltenham has become increasingly African American over the past decades. Back in the day, only about 10 percent of the high-school population was black; Reggie Jackson, who graduated two years before me, remains the school’s most famous alum. The large majority of my classmates were the sons and daughters of second-generation Jews who had followed the immigrant dream into Philly’s northern suburbs in the postwar years. (Yoni “Jonathan” Netanyahu, who would die in the 1976 Entebbe raid, graduated the same year as Reggie; his brother Bibi picked up his diploma three years later. Their unflattering view of their coddled American baby boomer classmates is the subject of this blunt 2015 Washington Post article.)
Today, the district is 53 percent black, though the demographics defy easy generalization. Most of those students are the children of a growing black middle class that had moved to Cheltenham for the same reason postwar Jewish families had: its relatively affordable, attractive homes, and its highly regarded schools, the holy grail of American house-hunting parents of all races. A number of black parents at the meeting spoke poignantly of the hopes that had brought them to the district. “I moved heaven and earth to make sure my child had a chance,” one voluble mother of a twelve-year-old pleaded. “I could have lived in a wonderful house in Philly. No way I’m sending my girl to those schools. I’d rather live in a box and let my kid get a good education.”
Some of Cheltenham’s arrivals are spillovers from nearby north Philadelphia, the city’s immense and long-suffering black ghetto. They have moved into aging apartment complexes on the district’s border, bringing with them the old neighborhood’s broken culture. Forty-five percent of the black children in Cheltenham are born to unmarried mothers; it’s jolting to realize that “illegitimacy,” as it was once called, was almost unheard of at the time my peers were piling into school bleachers to cheer Reggie Jackson. Poverty rates for these kids are well below the national average, but almost 30 percent of single-parent households in Cheltenham are nevertheless in the ranks of the poor or near-poor.
If those households are like the struggling single-parent homes studied by social scientists, then the children are experiencing radically different domestic lives than their middle-class black and white classmates — with few routines, disappearing fathers and stepfathers, and little adult interest in homework, teachers, and discipline. Researchers have repeatedly found that boys growing up in single-mother households are especially prone to “externalizing” behavior like fighting, impulsiveness, rudeness — in other words, precisely the sort of behavior that the community meeting was demanding the administration do something about.
This class and family divide, intertwined as it is with race, is off-limits to polite discussion, leading conversations like the one at the community meeting into a verbal traffic jam of contradictions and dodges. The student council president shed tears over the mayhem in one breath and in the next demanded an end to the black–white achievement gap and adoption of “data-driven solutions” like “restorative justice.” (Unsurprisingly, this popular education fad has yet to be subject to careful study.) The audience retreated to the familiar litany of policy fixes with a long history of uneven or meager results: more black teachers! More counselors! More mentors!
One solution is alternative schools, which would place the small number of students making education impossible for the majority into schools explicitly designed for kids unable to function in ordinary education environments. The February teacher survey showed that the vast majority of instructors supported the approach; several black parents also endorsed it at the meeting. (A white father reviled the idea as stigmatizing.) For three hours, parents and students demanded that the administration impose clear “consequences” for fighting and rudeness. The administrators have their self-contradicting marching orders: stigma-free consequences.
Those anxious about stigma shouldn’t worry. Between public racial sensitivities, current federal regulations, and (it’s a good bet) their own reluctance, the administrators’ hands are more or less tied. In 2013, the Obama administration’s Department of Education Civil Rights Division warned school districts that schools violate federal law when they “evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race” (author’s emphasis). Cheltenham’s ruffians will be safe from discipline and stigma, though not, of course, from each other.
The bitter irony of the widespread evasion about racial discrepancies in “externalizing” behavior is that it harms Cheltenham’s blacks above all. The large majority of kids who are well prepared to walk the halls and talk to teachers with a modicum of civility are forced to cede their educations and safety to the uncivilized few. Cheltenham has a committed (for now) cadre of white parents dedicated to diversity, but the township’s population is considerably whiter than its schools; a sizable number of whites have clearly already fled the local schools or decided not to move there in the first place. They’re not alone. Several disgusted black parents said that they had pulled their children out of the local schools despite paying “astronomical” taxes in order to live in the reputedly excellent district.
Now this lovely suburb with once-envied schools is facing black as well as white flight. Let’s see how the Education Department’s Civil Rights Division deals with that.