Education Opinion

Same Offense But Different Penalty

By Walt Gardner — December 12, 2014 2 min read
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When students are punished differently for committing the same offense in school, it immediately raises the question of disparate treatment, which is in violation of the Civil Rights Act (“Schools’ Discipline for Girls Differs by Race and Hue,” The New York Times, Dec. 11).

Two girls, one black and the other white, were suspended from Dutchtown Middle School in Henry County, Georgia for a few days last year for together writing graffiti on the walls of a gym bathroom. When the white girl’s parents paid $100 in restitution, the matter ended. But when the black girl’s parents could not afford to pay $100, the girl was charged with a trespassing misdemeanor. The girl admitted her guilt and spent her summer on probation under a 7 p.m. curfew, completed 16 hours of community service, and wrote a letter of apology to a student whose sneakers were defaced in the incident.

I believe that the broken windows theory has relevance for schools. Ignoring small acts of vandalism sends a subtle message that serious offenses will go unpunished. But in the case of the two girls, I fail to understand why school officials did not use restorative justice. The two girls could have sat down with the student whose sneakers were defaced, along with a school administrator, to turn the matter into a learning experience (“Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Circle,” The New York Times, Apr. 3, 2013). Exacerbating the matter, school officials escalated the incident into a criminal case, with racial overtones.

If the case were limited to one middle school in Georgia, it might be written off as an aberration. But according to the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, black girls were suspended at a rate of 12 percent from 2011 to 2012. This compares with a rate of two percent for white girls. Moreover, darker-skinned girls are disciplined more severely than lighter-skinned ones. Clearly, something more than mere chance explains these disparities.

“Disproportionate rates should not be regarded as unjustified merely because they reflect higher rates of improper behavior by minority students than by white students” (“Civil Rights Enforcement Gone Haywire,” Education Next, Fall 2014). I agree with this position. But it assumes that the same improper behavior triggers the same response by school officials. The nagging question, however, is whether there is not selective perception of improper behavior by school officials. In other words, do skin color and skin hue affect what ensues?

Title VI states: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Disciplining the two girls differently clearly violated this provision. The military can serve as a model in this regard. It has a proud record of color-blind discipline and promotion. Why can’t public schools follow suit?

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.