Backwards Thinking of the Day: Pinellas Schools Reconsider Black Student Discipline

Categories: Education, Ethics, Sociology

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Here’s an example of backwards thinking: apparently black students in Pinellas County schools are suspended and arrested at a disproportionately higher rate than students of other races. The proposed solution: an agreement has been drafted in which the schools are supposed to be “thinking about options and utilizing those options.” In other words, the solution is just more talk—discussing how it’s a bad thing that black students are arrested or suspended at such a disproportionate rate.

The draft is vague about how arrest policy will change, saying it will “encourage” schools and resource officers to pursue alternative punishments — something most if not all already try to do.

It is “accepted practice” for St. Petersburg’s school resource officers to arrest students only as a last resort, said Police Department spokesman Bill Proffitt.

Still, both sides say the agreement will force the district to devote more attention to black student discipline and behavior improvement, and hold officials accountable.

The draft requires each school to consider discipline data for black students relative to students of other races, and to use strategies that will improve discipline for all students, including blacks. It also requires the mediation parties to meet twice a year to review data, check progress and make changes.

Sigh. So basically the statement manages to say things will change while also denying that anything really needs to change, since arrest and suspension are supposedly already “last resorts.” That’s like a non-apology apology. The wording of devoting “more attention to black student discipline and behavior improvement” is also reminiscent of the weasel, as it implies that black student behavior is actually the problem. Of course, that could be true—it is possible that the disparity is merely the result of a behavior gap between back students and others. Is the problem that more black students are being disciplined (implying unequal disciplinary standards) or that the black students have caused more trouble, leading to more black students being disciplined? There’s a pretty big difference between those problems, and that’s what really needs to be assessed.

It is entirely possible that the problem in Pinellas County is systemic racism that results in black students being assigned harsher punishments than their counterparts, but simply looking at statistics showing higher discipline rates doesn’t address the question of the cause(s) of the disparity. Somebody needs to have the courage to ask the question, because otherwise any proposed “solution” does nothing more than cover over the real problem. What needs to be done is a thorough analysis of whether punishments are consistent across races for comparable offenses (i.e. if a white or Asian student gets into a fight, is the punishment the same as if it is a black student?). If not, then the system can be amended. If punishments are already consistent, the higher punishment ratios are a symptom of other problems.

This is case and point of how we in the USA have pursued racial equality in such situations through exactly the wrong means: instead of noting disparities and first seeking to understand their causes, we immediately jump to fix the results. Rather than treating the diseases, we try to fix the symptoms. The sad irony is that this sort of thing only serves to reinforce racism and inequality in that it requires that students be divided by race and that punishments consider race (isn’t that exactly what we shouldn’t be doing?). Shouldn’t systems be put in place that ensure equitable treatment for all students, with a uniform set of expectations and punishments for misbehavior? That might result in disparities, but at least the disparities would be the result of a fair process.

We really need to get away from the thinking that equality will mean that statistical measures like this will necessarily come out even—such thinking completely misunderstands the nature of statistics (where sample sizes and numbers of trials can dramatically affect results). We are also doing our non-white students a grave disservice when we imply that they need “special consideration” rather than equal treatment. We in the USA badly need to stop trying to treat the symptoms instead of the disease.

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  • Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all we had to do is encourage schools to apply equal standards and they would actually do just that? Unfortunately, that’s not reality.

    In my determination to move my child out of Chicago before middle school, even though we lived in Hyde Park (where Former President Obama‘s Chicago home is), I had the misfortune of moving into a neighborhood that was openly hostile in its racism. I worked and shopped in the area and since both environments had diverse populations, I believed that the surrounding area was too. It wasn’t.

    This is a small sampling of what TEACHERS did to my daughter: (1) Throw away her homework and swear she didn’t turn it in. (2) Tear up her homework IN STUDY HALL because my daughter chose to do her homework rather than watch a degrading movie about black people. (3) Scream at her in the hall, calling her “lazy.” (4) Attack her publicly (bully style) because of what any random white kid said without ever once asking my daughter what happened. (5) Label her as a behavior problem because a white boy was throwing something at her and she threw it back at him (they did nothing to him), (6) Give her a failing grade on an assignment in a Music class (Assignment: Bring in music from the 1970’s – My daughter chose “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye) because the teacher never heard of Marvin Gaye. I could fill a book, and might one day. Anyway, these were the teachers. Then there were the students. While a few kids were pretty nice, others were aggressively evil. It’s not that there were a lot of evil kids, it’s just that no one ever checked them, much less stopped them. People would witness my daughter’s dilemma and never stand up for her, and here’s the kicker, when she stood up for herself, SHE was treated as the problem. It was so bad that I went to her teachers, the Principal and ultimately the School Board. They did not see it as a problem and did nothing.

    As a black woman I had to teach my daughter early on to stand up for herself, speak what is right, “go to paper” (document) issues not resolved in conversations and keep me abreast of everything so that I could deal with the authorities. The physical abuse was particularly disturbing. There was one white boy who was always hitting and kicking her and when he intentionally slammed a locker door on her hand, she finally “clocked” him. As usual, my daughter was censured, not the boy. The physical violence was the last straw for me. They knew my daughter was being abused and not only provided no protection, but were a party to the abuse. When teachers don’t stop unacceptable behavior, it is interpreted as acceptable and in some cases, tacit approval.

    Fast forward to today. I’m delighted to say that despite all that my daughter endured, and perhaps in small part because of it, she is strong, brilliant, persistent, hard working, and well adjusted. She will be graduating from law school in a few weeks. She channeled her ability to stand up for herself constructively. More importantly, she learned that she was worth standing up for. To God be the glory!

    • What disgusting behavior on the part of that school. I went through something similar (though not for racial reasons) at my high school, though once I took a tape recorder around in my pocket and proved what was going on, the school finally took (mild) action on my behalf. The actions on the part of your daughter’s school are reprehensible.

      I’m glad to see your daughter manage to persist and overcome despite all that. It’s a testament to strong upbringing, I’m sure.


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