On Sunday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued an apology in the New York Daily News for previously supporting zero-tolerance policies for misbehavior in schools.
After references to the appalling video of a policeman violently dragging a young girl across a classroom in South Carolina and the much-publicized “got-to-go” list of students in one of New York City’s Success Academy charter schools, Weingarten wrote:
These [zero-tolerance] policies were promoted by people, including me, who hoped they would create safe learning environments for students by freeing them from disruptions by misbehaving peers. It was analogous to the broken-windows theory of policing.
We were wrong. Data from two decades of these get-tough policies show they have failed to improve school safety. They have emphasized punishment, rather than developing the positive behaviors students need in school and in life. They have resulted in an incalculable loss of learning time. And zero-tolerance policies disproportionately impact students of color, particularly African-American and Latino boys.
Everything Weingarten says here is true. (Except for her math: Success Academies don’t suspend students, as she claims, at a rate of seven times that of New York City’s traditional schools; Chalkbeat New York puts it at closer to three times the citywide rate.)
To our national shame, American schools, charter and traditional, suspend black and Latino boys at disproportionate rates. The “got-to-go” list at Success Academy’s Fort Greene branch is both indefensible and an emblem of that shame.
But the road to disciplinary education reform doesn’t start with well-intentioned apologies from Weingarten or, for that matter, from Eva Moskowitz, who issued her own mea culpa right after the list surfaced and took responsibility over what happened. The road to reform starts with acknowledging the universality of the problem and crafting approaches that address a long-festering institutional bias that infects American schools.
Black Students Are Being Pushed Out
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education trace the higher rate of suspensions of students of color to the residual effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws. A federal study found that across all grade levels, black children are 3 times more likely than white students to be suspended:
Black children account for 18 percent of the nation’s preschool population but receive nearly 50 percent of out-of-school suspensions. According to the report, in 84 districts in the South, black students accounted for all of the suspensions from public schools and in 181 Southern districts, black students accounted for all of the expulsions.
In New York City in particular, the Civil Rights Data Collection project maintained by the federal government shows that black students in New York City comprise 28.1 percent of district enrollment. However, 48.5 percent of students who receive in-school suspensions are black, 53.9 percent of students who receive out-of-school suspensions are black, and 66.9 percent of students who are expelled are black.
Clearly, this is not just a Success Academy problem—it’s an American one. The school-to-prison pipeline is the school-to-suspension-to-prison pipeline. So, how do we address this?
1. Let’s not point fingers, unless you want to aim blame at just about everyone involved in American public education.
2. Let’s acknowledge the value of increasing awareness and new policies that employ positive discipline in lieu of punitive sanctions. Weingarten rightly praises New York City’s shift away from zero-tolerance, and the city isn’t acting alone.
For example, one little-noted success of Cami Anderson’s superintendency in Newark was a 37 percent drop in school suspensions during the 2012-2013 school year through, as she wrote in the Huffington Post, “fair, non-biased, restorative discipline policies that seek to support all types of students.”
3. Let’s agree that incorporating “zero-tolerance for zero-tolerance” requires, as Weingarten notes, extra resources and better teacher training, particularly in classroom management.
Suspending a student is easy. Addressing the root of the behavior is hard, and may require the involvement of a coterie of professionals, from social workers to behavioral therapists.
4. Let’s not forget the 18 percent of students with disabilities who face suspensions and that a large percentage of this cohort is black males. According to the Department of Education, 34 percent of suspended special needs students are black boys and 22.5 percent are black girls. And it’s a distressingly common practice for schools to place children with behavioral disabilities in private or county placements, or as Weingarten coins it, a “push out” of difficult students.
I’m heartbroken by the attack of a South Carolina student. And I see the same pattern in the excessive suspension of children of color. Kudos to Randi Weingarten, who demonstrates honesty and educational leadership in this call for keeping children both safe and in school.