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Thompson: Looking Deeper Into Discipline Disparities


Christopher Edley, the co-chair of the Equity and Excellence Commission, noted recently on the PBS News Hour that the recent report on racial disparities in discipline is a "smoking gun" showing there is something seriously wrong with the way our schools serve poor children of color.

If schools are "not successful at figuring out why Jamal and Jose are acting out," said Edley, "the chances are pretty slim that they're figuring out why Maria is two years behind in reading." 

To fix our schools, we need to intervene with our kids in a way that "works for each kid."  I am  leery of data-driven solutions to the disparate impact of discipline, however, but not because they are too hard on educators. The simplistic use of disciplinary numbers is too soft on the problem.

Edley's views are informed by a broader background in employment discrimination law.  I want to complement them with a deeper discussion of my system's disciplinary data. In one sense, the numbers reported on the Oklahoma City Public Schools are not as bad. African-Americans represent 30% of our students and 33% of expulsions. More worrisome is that black students receive nearly 50% of out-of-school suspensions.

My first complaint is that the federal data leaves a huge gap between number of suspensions of more than one day and more extreme actions like expulsions and arrests, and it provides no context for discussing those actions. In Oklahoma City, for instance, 58% blacks with disabilities are suspended for more than one day. The most alarming statistic is that 20% of black special education students fit into that category. The data does not address how many days those students were suspended, however. The expulsion rate for black students on IEPs is 0%.

According to the school system's code of conduct, suspensions for more than ten days are limited to extreme cases, such as assaults (as opposed to fights) that cause injury, rape, or the possession guns or other weapons. According the files I was given by the OKCPS, in 2010 the district had 278 of those sorts of incidents. Other incidents, such as the possession of drugs, explosives, and sexual misconduct, can receive a suspension of ten days or more, and they might be serious enough for expulsion. The OKCPS had 337 of those cases. And, of course, there are numerous other offenses, such as arson, extortion, and bullying, that may or may not merit an eleven day suspension.

So, why did OKCPS secondary schools only suspend 220 students for more than ten days, and only 12 students for mandatory suspensions for the rest of the year or a full year? Civil rights activists should also ask why the system did not seriously address each of those 615 incidents, and many more cases of involving violence or endangering other students. I submit that systems like mine exhibit the mentality that was described in "The Wire," as "juking the stats." In an environment where data has high-stakes, the priority of systems is "turning felonies into misdemeanors."

There something wrong with a system that suspends 7,016 secondary students in-house, suspends 7,135 secondary students for five days or less, issues 854 suspensions of six days or more, and only places 69 students in alternative settings.  Does such a pattern contribute to the "school to prison pipeline" by being too harsh or by not being credible?  I would argue that it is denying treatment to vulnerable kids.  Would we deny diabetes treatments to patients because their demographic group is overrepresented in the medical  system?

So, I have mixed feelings about the discussion of disparate effects that show that schools are failing our children. I hope districts will listen to the words and the intent of civil rights leaders like Christopher Edley. I would be thrilled if districts shifted resources from gold-plated data systems to fight the educational blame game to longitudinal Early Warning Systems for providing timely interventions. In theory, we could have an honest discussion about the risks and benefits of investing in high-quality, on-site or off-site alternative slots, so schools can address chronic disorder and violence. My fear, however, is that education’s notorious "culture of compliance" will continue, and that systems will concentrate on improving their numbers and ignore the realities that produced the problems. JT (@drjohnthompson) 


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Why don't I read anything about lead poisoning differences? It is well known that lead poisoning primarily affects minorities and that lead poisoning creates violence and misbehaviors. Ipso facto, minorities should be expected to display more violence and misbehavior that they are then disciplined for. Where is this controlled for in the study?

zoniedude, once again you are right. In the small geographical area where Oklahoma City's problems are worst, we had three superfund sights. As I've said, when they asked Mickey Mantle about his goal and he said "forty" he did not mean home runs but years of life. In his home town in northeast Oklahoma, because of the zinc mines, making to the age of forty was an accomplishment.

during my last few years in OKCPS it was clear that statistics whether true or contrived were desired to give an impression of success. Where proper discipline should have been applied in such a way that students would learn acceptable social behavior for better success after their school years, administrators would water things down so that a major infraction becoming a minor one would render a statistic that would make it appear what the administrators were doing was effective. As a result the school might look good, but the student was misled into believing their actions were acceptable. This was a disservice as after they graduated they would assume their behavior would be accepted until the suprise at work or college when it wouldn't be.
I also witnessed, and teachers complained about this, that discipline depended on to whom the student reported, and race played into what discipline was meted out. Administrators made excuses for the students, again misleading the students about expectations. Unpopular students were dealt with more severely than ones liked by administrators.
None of this was good for the kid. On racial lines certain behaviors were excused based on a type of bigotry that claimed that because of the students background certain behavior was to be expected and excused as opposed helping the student overcome backgrounds for the better

You are making allegations based on observations of specific individual schools. Lead poisoning is not an allegation, it is scientifically documented and occurs in the circumstances that conform to the OCR report: Black males are known to be disproportionately lead poisoned; Black males are known to be disproportionately incarcerated; longitudinal research shows a dose related association between childhood lead poisoning and adult criminal behavior.

All of these are FACTS that require Black males to be disproportionately disciplined in schools. This represents a REALITY that is well-documented scientifically and nothing can change that reality.

I'm agreeing with you

I want to start off by saying, I think the world is unfair period. At times, I still see a lot of racism going on in the world and it is ridiculous. Schools and people need to understand that there are children out there that need a lot of discipline and they aren't African American. I don't think anybody should put a color on behavior or punishment. Anybody can have behavior problems or need some discipline. We as teachers need to re-focus our curriculum and see what is really going on behind closed doors in these children's lives.

My follow up was directed at "Joe" and this one is to "Jasmine" who apparently doesn't care in the slightest that Black males are regularly poisoned with a neurotoxin that destroys their lives. Lead poisoning is ubiquitous in inner-city low-income neighborhoods and these children have their lives crippled because of it. What is worse, many people can see that Black males are seemingly unable to control themselves and attribute it to being Black, rather than to being poisoned. Therefore racism is given a boost by ignoring lead poisoning. Urban schools will stay failing schools until we address that lead poisoned children will display the characteristic symptoms of lead poisoning. The only thing that is unfair about lead poisoning is that people allow it to happen and it happens primarily to Black males, partly because they are most likely to play in urban soil.

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