The Legal Aid Justice Center, which has released another report decrying differential rates of suspensions and expulsions in Virginia public schools, is described by the Richmond Times-Dispatch as an organization that “works to fight injustice.” I have no doubt that the Legal Aid Justice Center sees itself on the side of the angels, but I’m surprised that the Times-Dispatch accepts the group’s self definition so uncritically. I’ve never heard of an organization anywhere claiming to fight for “injustice.” It’s really a question of whose justice is being fought over.
In this case, the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights for “justice” for black students who commit offenses that get them suspended or expelled. Making an issue out of the fact that blacks were suspended in Virginia about four times as often as Hispanic or white students in 2015-16, the LAJC calls for sweeping changes in school disciplinary policies and, of course, more money to implement them.
The LAJC is not fighting for “justice” for black children whose classrooms are disrupted by trouble makers. While the organization goes to great pains to measure the rates of suspensions and expulsions by race, it makes no effort whatsoever to measure the race of those whose educations are deprived by the ne’er-do-wells. Indeed, its report, “Suspended Progress 2017,” shows no interest in their plight whatsoever.
The front-page Times-Dispatch article quotes extensively and uncritically from the LAJC report. The reporter doesn’t quote anyone else who has studied school disciplinary issues, nor does he quote anyone from the Virginia Department of Education or local school districts. The reporter never informs the reader that parents — including many black parents — are often dismayed by the lack of discipline in many schools.
The report found that Virginia schools issued over 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to over 70,000 individual students in 2015-16, an increase in the overall suspension rate for the second year after several years of declines. Virginia schools use “exclusionary” discipline with very young students at an “astonishing” rate, states the report. And the majority of suspensions were issued for minor offenses — “approximately two-thirds of all suspensions given [were] for behavior offenses, such as possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language.”
Perhaps most disturbing is that Virginia schools continue to disproportionately suspend African-American students and students with disabilities. The suspension rate for African-American students was 3.8 times larger than for Hispanic and white students. Students with disabilities were suspended at a rate 2.6 times larger than that of their non-disabled peers. When examining the effects of race, sex, and disability, the results are especially troubling: African-American male students with disabilities were almost 20 times more likely to be suspended than white female students without disabilities.
The authors never talk to anyone in the educational front lines — the people meting out the discipline — to get their perspective on what’s happening. The authors assume from the get-go that racial disparities in disciplinary actions are in and of themselves evidence of injustice — no other explanation needed.
The LAJC never pauses to consider that the reason why African-American male students with disabilities are disciplined at a higher rate is that they are committing offenses at a higher rate than white female students without disabilities. Given what we know of the breakdown of the family, the geographic concentration of poverty, and how many poor single mothers lose their children to “the street,” it should not surprise anyone that behavior problems are rampant in poor communities generally and poor African-American communities specifically.
This chart, which appears in the “Suspended Progress” report, shows the school districts where the highest rates of suspensions occur. Every one of these has high percentages, often majorities, of African-American students. Let’s take the City of Richmond, with which I have some familiarity. Most teachers are African-American, most principals are African-American, the superintendent is (or was, before he was canned for political reasons) African-American, and the school board is predominantly African-American. It defies reason to think that anti-African-American bias is permeating Richmond school disciplinary practices.
The real problem is that teachers and administrators in Richmond are grappling with large numbers of students who come from exceedingly challenging environments like housing projects riddled with violence, drugs, crime, and murder where the norms of bourgeois behavior have utterly collapsed. Eighteen percent of the student body was suspended because 18% of the student body committed offenses against school rules.
The LAJC engages in a classic case of defining deviancy down by declaring that cell phone possession, disrespect, and “inappropriate language” as “minor” offenses. We didn’t have cell phones when I was a kid, but I can assure you that being disrespectful to teachers and using profanity assuredly would have warranted disciplinary action at my school. The phrase “inappropriate language” sounds inoffensive, but I question whether students are suspended for using the occasional profanity. As for cell phone possession, the LAJC’s own data shows that the number of students disciplined for that offense is a minor cause of short-term suspensions and a negligible one of long-term suspensions.
The biggest causes of disciplinary action are disruption of classrooms or campus, defiance of authority, disrespecting teachers. Some offenses may seem “minor” if viewed in isolation. But we have no sense from these numbers how often similar offenses are routinely ignored, and we have no sense how often students have been lectured or given second or third chances before finally being slapped with a disciplinary action.
I find especially noteworthy the LAJC’s observation that after two years of supposedly improving statistics that suspensions and expulsions have increased for two years. How do we explain this? Have teachers and administrators become less rigorous in their adherence to the protocols imposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Obama administration justice department? Have they become more biased in their attitudes against African-American (but not Hispanic) students? Or has discipline gotten worse under those protocols? Have the supposedly “proven alternatives” like “restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of support, and emotional learning programs” failed to maintain discipline? Indeed, do misbehaving students, perceiving that they are less likely to suffer adverse consequences from their actions under the new regime, felt freer to act disruptively?
Locked into its mindset that views every racial disparity as evidence of a social injustice, LAJC never asks those questions. But Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters and editors should not accept social justice warrior dogma without question. In fact, if the Times-Dispatch were truly interested in social justice, it would conduct its own inquiry into how LAJC-inspired disciplinary policies are working out.