The school to prison pipeline is in higher gear than ever
The focus has been intense on the wildly disproportionate number of black students who are suspended or expelled from America’s public schools. But what has flown quietly under the radar is the even more wildly disproportionate number of black students who are arrested on high school and even elementary school campuses for alleged behavior that in decades past was handled in the principal’s office and with a call home to parents. That’s still the way school infractions are handled with most white students and in most suburban public schools.
But if the student is black, a cross word between students, a glare at the teacher, or a scuffle is likely to bring the police. The hard numbers tell the brutal tale of the iron fist treatment of blacks by school administrators. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in separate reports in 2012 and 2014 found that more than 70 percent of black and Hispanic students were involved in school related arrests or simply turned over to local police and the courts. The report found that the actual arrest rate for black students was one-third higher than for white students. In the Chicago public schools in 2011 the number of black students arrested even topped the national average. Nearly three-quarters of all arrests were of African-American students though they comprised less than half of the Chicago public school students. They were arrested at a rate nearly four times higher than even that of Latinos.
School officials have grossly overreacted to the real or perceived bad behavior of some black students for two reasons. One is what the book on enforcement and public policy mandates. The Federal Gun-Free Schools Act, passed in 1994, requires that states order their schools to kick students out for weapons possession in order to qualify for federal funds. (School officials later expanded the list of violations for student expulsion to include fighting and other violent acts.) The zero-tolerance school laws and policy in many school districts mandate that a student be expelled for one year for infractions that include drug sales, robbery, assault, weapons possession and fights that cause serious physical injury.
The other has nothing to do with legal or district policy requirements, but naked, raw racial stereotypes and fears. Many teachers and administrators are quick to call the police for real or perceived infractions by black students because of their ingrained belief that black students are more prone to violence and menacing behavior than white students. When some young blacks turned to gangs, guns and drugs and terrorized their communities, much of the press titillated the public with endless features on the crime-prone, crack-plagued, blood-stained streets of the ghetto. TV action news crews turned into a major growth industry stalking black neighborhoods filming busts for the nightly news. The explosion of gangster rap and the spate of Hollywood ghetto films convinced many Americans that the thug lifestyle was the black lifestyle.
School officials defend their quick resort to call in the school or city police with the claim that black students do commit more serious offenses than other students. There’s nothing to support this. The overwhelming majority of the arrests are not for serious offenses such as robbery, assault, or gang violence, but for offenses such as disrespect, excessive noise, threatening behavior and loitering. White students, by contrast, were punished for infractions that could be clearly documented such as smoking, vandalism and using obscene language. The other behavior was strictly a subjective call by the teacher or school administrator.
Teams of academics closely examined the notion that black students were more violent, disruptive or menacing than white students. They found that the disparities in suspensions didn’t result from blacks “acting out” in the classroom more than whites. The heavy-handed oust of black students from schools is also a major factor in the grossly high dropout rate of black students from many inner city schools, which in turn continues to spin the vicious cycle of unemployment, crime, and incarceration. The notion that these juvenile offenses are routinely expunged from a student’s record later is a myth. The records follow them and students and their parents have waged long and costly legal battles to get a juvenile arrest record sealed.
Last January Attorney General Eric Holder, alarmed at the trend toward lock em’ up first for any and all infractions by black students, urged school districts to rethink their zero-tolerance discipline policies and the corrosive effect it’s having on the education of far too many students. Some school districts have tried to ease back the throttle on the rushing in the police for any and every infraction in the classroom or on school grounds. They have reverted to treating minor discipline problems as problems to be handled at the school administrative level. This is welcome. But there are far too many school officials who zealously enforce get-tough policies to prove that they will do whatever it takes to get rid of disruptive students. The problem with that is that those students are and remain mostly black.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.