School Discipline Is Not Racist

(Photo: Crystal Srock/Dreamstime)
The Obama administration’s solution to racial disparities in school suspensions was to make schools stop suspending students. Here’s a better idea.

A middle-school teacher in suburban Virginia confided in a friend about a troubling incident that was causing her nightmares: When she touched a student’s sleeve while telling him to quiet down, he swore at her and threatened her with physical violence. She said she wouldn’t bring the incident to the principal’s attention because he was under pressure to reduce suspensions in the school. (The teacher’s story was relayed to me in confidence, so I have avoided naming its source.)

In 2014, school districts throughout the nation received a mandate from President Obama’s Department of Education to reduce the racial disparity in suspension rates, which were three times higher for black students than for whites. In response, rather than addressing and changing the violent and antisocial behavior of students, schools throughout the country have targeted the presumed bigotry and discrimination of teachers. This methodology is in sync with the dominant — and misguided — narrative that any racial disparity in schools is evidence of racism.

As a result of the Obama DOE’s mandate, the grievance-mongering industry has seen millions of dollars pour in from education budgets. The mandate gave anyone with a product to peddle a ready market. One such product, a book called Don’t Kick Them Out!, became required reading in some schools. Riddled with grammatical errors and pretentious language, the book promoted the premise that white privilege and institutional racism explain all racial disparities in schools and advised: “If a student uses profanity, why would we suspend him? He has proven that he has a limited vocabulary.”

Yet the amateurish Don’t Kick Them Out! pales in comparison to the polished PowerPoints and finely honed workshops produced by groups like San Francisco–based Pacific Education Group (PEG), which has been given contracts with more than 50 school districts nationwide and raked in millions of dollars. PEG peddles its anti-white-privilege training seminars with euphemistic titles such as “cultural-competency training,” “courageous conversations,” and “restorative justice,” in which teachers are told they are largely to blame for the bad behavior of black students because they “misinterpret” African-American culture.

The outcome for one of PEG’s early clients, the school district of St. Paul, Minn., indicates how students and teachers throughout the nation will continue to suffer the consequences of the Obama mandate. In St. Paul’s schools, teachers, school-bus drivers, janitors, and lunchroom servers were indoctrinated with PEG’s message, while penalties for violence and behavioral standards for students were drastically lowered. Only the worst offenses — arson, aggravated assault, and firearm possession — were reported to the police, while school officials were told to handle “lesser” offenses such as assault, sexual violence, and drug possession on their own. For a time, principals’ bonuses were dependent on their track record of reducing discipline referrals for black students.

In St. Paul, this new breed of “untouchable” black students forced their way into classrooms to take revenge on rivals, rampaged through the hallways, and assaulted teachers who tried to intervene, sending them to hospitals with concussions, brain damage, and other serious injuries. In spite of the fanatical focus on reducing suspensions, violence in the St. Paul schools rose, and suspensions actually increased. Angry and frightened teachers and parents demanded and won the dismissal of the district’s superintendent.

The victims of this failed experiment include not only the battered teachers and the minority students trying to learn amid the mayhem but also the black youths who saw that their behavior was divorced from any consequences.

The victims of this dangerous, failed experiment include not only the injured and battered teachers and the minority students trying to learn amid the mayhem in their schools, but also the black youths who saw that their behavior was divorced from any consequences. At the core of this “racial-equity discipline” initiative gone awry is the misguided determination that the black youths’ behavior is a response to the vestiges of slavery and discrimination and that these youths can never change. There is powerful, tangible evidence that this assumption is flat-out wrong.

In many of the most dangerous and violent schools in the country, my organization, the Woodson Center, has helped establish violence-free zones (VFZs). These are collaborative efforts coordinated by community groups that work side by side with school staff and administrators and, most important, enlist young adults from the neighborhood who have traveled the same road as troubled students to serve as “youth advisors.” Countering the negative impact of societal and family factors, these men and women serve as “moral mentors” and “character coaches,” whose committed outreach changes the vision, values, and attitudes of the young people with whom they work. In those schools implementing VFZs, the average number of suspension days has fallen, truancy has decreased, and academic achievement has improved. In addition, police data reveal that even crime rates in adjacent neighborhoods have fallen.

These transformations occurred within the same demographic of low-income minorities that the dismal experiments in St. Paul and Virginia aimed to help. The difference was that our VFZ programs focused on students’ behavior and character, recognized the potential of each youth, and delivered a message of personal responsibility through messengers whom the students could trust. They changed the lives of hundreds of young people for the better, and they can do the same for hundreds or thousands of others.

It is time to stop the flow of funds to opportunistic, grievance-industry charlatans who have doomed the futures of thousands of at-risk youths. We need instead to direct our precious resources to those groups that have demonstrated they can make a big difference in the lives of young people who desperately need positive role models.


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Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of The Woodson Center, which works to empower local leaders in troubled neighborhoods to increase public safety, spur upward mobility, and inspire racial unity in America. His new book is Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers.


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