The question of race in school suspensions debated

It’s a sure bet that everyone has an opinion on why students of color are more likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts, and the loudest voices will likely carry the day when the federal government decides whether to roll back guidelines that sought to take race out of the reasons for the suspensions.

There is, of course, not even agreement that race is one of the reasons but the numbers aren’t pretty.

The New York Times today notes that although black students makes up 41-percent of the student population, they account for 76 percent of suspensions.

Former Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson conducted her own study of the suspensions and found teachers and other educators use different words when describing the students who were suspended, the Times says.

White students in kindergarten were referred to as “gifted, but high strung”, for example. Black students were described as “destructive” and “violent.”

The new policy of suspensions doesn’t work, however, according to some teachers in the district, in which educators are split on the question.

Simon Whitehead, a former physical education teacher at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, said he had watched the district’s discipline policy changes play out in his classes. Name-calling escalated to shoving, and then physical assaults. Profanity was redefined as “cultural dialect,” he said.

“It threw the school into complete chaos,” he said. “The kids knew they weren’t going to go home.”

Mr. Whitehead said he learned not to call his students out in front of their peers. He did not use the word “detention,” but rather “quality time.” Eventually, he would just “sweep a lot under the rug.”

The discipline model that he said had worked for him for 25 years — a warning, then a consequence — was no longer recognized by his bosses. He retired last year, labeled a racist.

“We do need to train teachers, especially white teachers, on how to interact with our African-American students,” he said. “But not expecting the same things from them is actually disrespectful. That would actually be racist.”

The district as a whole is portrayed as a mess in the Times article. And yet, some schools seem to have it figured out.

At Lyndale Community School, which has almost equal percentages of minority and white students, discipline is a “loaded term,” said the principal, Mark Stauduhar. He said his data — there were two suspensions in the school of more than 500 last year — showed that the school was a “healthy place” that emphasized positive reinforcement.

When it comes to misbehavior, “the conversations are about a mistake that a child made, not something that’s wrong with them,” he said. Most important, he added, his staff members are all on the same page. “If students are demonstrating behaviors that are not aligned with our policy, it’s our job to figure out why.”

But the district has gone through three superintendents in four years and progress is meager, the Times reports. Black students still account for two-thirds of suspensions even with the new rules that are on shaky ground.

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