Education Opinion

Disparate Impact in School Discipline

By Walt Gardner — April 18, 2016 1 min read
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There are few things that are guaranteed to drive teachers out of the classroom faster than disruptive students. No matter how dedicated they are, teachers reach a point when they can take it no longer (“Mayhem in the Classroom,” The Weekly Standard, Apr. 18).

Although the situation in St. Paul, Minn. is in the news today, what is happening there is repeated too often in other urban districts across the country (“A Silent National Crisis: Violence Against Teachers,” American Psychological Association, 2016). The immediate cause is the attempt to engineer racial statistical parity in discipline rates, regardless of students’ actual conduct. In other words, the most outrageous behavior must be tolerated if it results in too many black students or students of other races being disciplined (“When Schools Are Forced to Practice Race-Based Discipline,” The Atlantic, Aug. 26, 2015).

What is overlooked in enforcing this absurd policy is the effect it has on students who want to learn and teachers who want to teach. Since black students are suspended or disciplined at a rate greater than students of other races, it is automatically assumed that the reason is racism. I question that. What if black students (or students of any other race) do, in fact, engage in behavior that is disruptive? Are teachers supposed to ignore the conduct out of fear that they will be accused of prejudice?

When I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, students who cursed a teacher or were willfully defiant would be automatically suspended until their parents appeared for a conference. Race was never a consideration. But the policy was altered as the student body changed due to busing. By ignoring or downplaying disrespectful conduct, the school slowly became unrecognizable.

I think what I witnessed was an example of the “broken windows” theory of crime. Small episodes that are ignored invariably lead to widespread chaos, including physical assaults. But all that seems to count today is avoiding disparate outcomes, no matter how justified they are. I say that is a prescription for disaster.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.