Friday, March 18, 2016

Disparities in School Discipline & Claudette Colvin's Legacy

Massachusetts student discipline by race 2014
On Wednesday, as American media headlines were abuzz with political analysis of the Super Tuesday presidential primary results, Motoko Rich published an interesting article in the New York Times about troubling findings from an analysis of wide disparities in school discipline in charter schools based on data collected by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

The report found that black charter school students are four times as likely to be disciplined as their white peers for the same offenses (disabled students are two to three times as likely to face discipline) and that these disparities begin as early as preschool.

The report offers insight not only into how student's race impacts the way teachers and administrators perceive, and interact with students of color, but how that perception can consciously or subconsciously skew the ways they decide to mete out disciplinary measures as well.

The OCR data reflects similar findings in American public schools as well, as reflected in a 2014 OCR analysis of the 97,000 public schools across the nation which showed disparities in school discipline based on race as well which, like the OCR data on charter schools shows, begin as early as preschool.

UCLA researchers from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies also analyzed federal data to do comparisons of out-of-school suspensions in elementary and secondary schools in districts across all 50 states in 2015 and found wide disparities based on student's race in states like Missouri, Florida and Wisconsin.

According to UCLA's data, Wisconsin, the home state of former Republican Presidential candidate Governor Scott Walker, suspended 34% of its black students, even though blacks only make up about 6.3% of the overall state population and whites make up about 86.2%.

2013 NYC student rally against disparities in discipline 
Back in the fall of 2014 a non-profit based in Boston, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights School Discipline, issued a report based on data compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Education that found that black and Latino students were far more likely to face school discipline for non-criminal, non-violent and non-drug related offenses, and the discipline they received was more harsh than that meted out to their white classmates (see graphic above). 

The disparities in discipline were actually worse in Boston charter schools.

In an interview one of the authors of the LCCRSD report, Matt Cregor, told Boston public radio station WBUR:

"It could be disrespect, it could be dress code violations, it could be tardiness, whatever it is we know it's a harsh punishment that research has shown to predict school drop-out, grade retention and involvement in the juvenile justice system."

The last time I blogged about this issue was back in January in response to a reader named Katherine who sent me a link to a report entitled, "Separate and Unequal: School Funding in 'Post Racial' America" which examined how public school funding reinforces racial segregation in American schools - in the 21st century no less.

While I'm certainly not a qualified researcher, having blogged about this issue a few times in the past few years, I have to wonder if the gaps in discipline in U.S. public and charter schools are getting worse - or are researchers and institutions simply devoting more comprehensive analysis of the problem?

Civil rights icon Claudette Colvin
On Tuesday, Melinda Archer published a really insightful interview in The Atlantic with Monique W. Morris, author of "The Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools", an analysis of how long-festering stigmas based on race and sex have combined to disenfranchise, marginalize and exclude African-American girls in American schools.

A really interesting example of the impact of stereotypes on black American girls that Morris cites in her book is that of Claudette Colvin (pictured left), a black Montgomery, Alabama teenager who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus on March 2, 1955 - a full nine months before seamstress Rosa Parks did in December 1955.

Like Parks, Colvin, then 15-years-old, was sitting on a crowded bus after a long days work when the driver ordered her to give up a seat to one of the white passengers who boarded at a stop.

Colvin refused and she was arrested.

As the Website The Visibility Project notes in an article about Colvin's largely-unheralded contribution to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, local church and civil rights leaders at the time opted not to rally behind Colvin's arrest because they were concerned that because she was dark-skinned, several months pregnant and had been outwardly confrontational with with the policeman who arrested her, she was "not the right type" for mainstream civil rights leaders to get behind.

According to the Visibility project, Aurelia Browder was arrested in April, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, and Mary Louise Smith was arrested in October of the same year - so there were at least three other women arrested before Rosa Parks.

In fact it was actually Colvin, Browder, Smith and two other black Montgomery women who were the plaintiffs in the federal court case Browder v. Gayle that deemed the segregation on Montgomery buses a violation of the Constitution - a case which was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

As Morris noted in The Atlantic interview, Colvin was well-read, active in the civil rights movement and was a member of the local NAACP Youth Council, but her pregnancy and militant attitude left her largely forgotten in the history of the civil rights movement - but Rosa Parks is the one whose face is on a stamp.

Obviously that's not to minimize Park's courage or determination in any way, I just grew up with the knowledge that it was Park's refusal to give up her seat that sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, when in fact Colvin, Browder and Smith all showed the same non-violent resistance months before Parks, yet I never heard their names before reading The Atlantic article  cited above.

But to come back to my original point and wrap up, it's been remarkable to see how little the disparities in the American education system have been covered by mainstream media over the course of the presidential campaign season.

Sure we've seen the occasional run-of-the-mill political analysis of Senator Bernie Sanders' call for free college tuition or Hillary Clinton's call to cap student loan interest rates by the usual assortment of talking heads on cable and network television.

But for the most part, the state of American schools has been relegated to the proverbial side burner of political discussion.

Over the course of 2015 - 2016, mainstream American media (online, television, print and radio) has devoted an alarmingly large percentage of it's presidential campaign coverage to Donald Trump to the exclusion of far more important stories and issues affecting the global population.

As essayist / journalist Matt Taibbi observed in a revealing look at the state of Trump's candidacy in the March 10th issue of Rolling Stone, many journalists seem at once revolted and consumed with the divisive, toxic nature of the Republican front-runner's campaign - expressing alarm that such a controversial candidate has won so many primaries, even as they continually devote front-page coverage to his predictable insults and slights.

To the point that the collective media coverage of Trump replaces any need for him to spend anywhere near the level of money on campaign commercials as his competitors do.

According to a Buzzfeed article, an assortment of American journalists have begun to express "concern" over what is being deemed "wall-to-wall" coverage of Trump - which frankly strikes me as coming more than just a little too late in the political game.

So while it's a positive sign to see more comprehensive analysis of disparities in school discipline being reported in the media, the issue is far more critical to the future of America than Trump's latest tirade or comment.

Maybe if the media saw it that way, the issue would attract the level of attention and visibility it deserves from politicians, school administrators, academics and parents alike.

In the meantime, millions of students of color in elementary and secondary public and charter schools around the nation must overcome yet another barrier to a fair and substantive education based not on their capacity to learn or absorb knowledge, but on the color of their skin or ethnicity - and the way teachers and administrators view them.

No comments: