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Zero Tolerance for Structural Racism

March 20, 2010

image via NYT

A case being heard in North Carolina this week is legally concerned with rights to education, but brings up many other pressing concerns about zero tolerance policies, systemic racism, and disproportionate punishment.  The New York Times reported this week about the case, in which two girls were suspended from school for their involvement in a schoolyard fight, and then additionally denied the opportunity to attend an alternative school, despite the fact that such a school existed.  Thus, the punishment for fighting (which involved, as I’ll explain below, no weapons or injuries to anyone) was half a year of no schooling whatsoever.  On Monday, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on behalf of the girls, Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy, that their constitutional rights to education were violated by the Beaufort County school board’s refusal to allow them access to alternative schooling.  Moreover, the NYT continues,

Here in Beaufort County, officials will not explain exactly why the two suspended girls…both sophomores then, were denied access to the alternative school. Robert Belcher, chairman of the school board, said in an interview that the principal had placed them among the “most egregious” violators and that he would not second-guess that judgment.

In fact, it appears that the lack of justification for such a severe punishment is mystifying to audiences beyond the Times, as Viktoria King’s mother explains to the Beaufort Observer:

Then when the Superintendent and School Board refused to tell us why they had such disparities in the punishments we had no other choice but to go to court. The issue is not whether the students should have been punished. The issue is the fairness of the punishments. What the principal and superintendent did was wrong and the School Board just ignored our pleas for fair treatment.

I hope the outcome of this entire situation will be to cause schools to treat students fairly. If they need to be punished, punish them. Even if students make a mistake they should still have access to educational services. In this case those services were available at the Alternative School but some of these students were not allowed to go there, yet others were. The school system should have some rational basis for punishing some much more severely than others for essentially the same offense. That’s the School Board’s job to see that every student is treated fairly under the policies they adopt.

While the issue of fair treatment is not what the Court in North Carolina will be concerned with on Monday, King’s mother is right to bring it up, given the documented problems of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that are disproportionately applied to black children like Viktoria and Jessica.

Zero-tolerance policies have the sneaky appearance of promoting a kind of Draconian fairness—anyone who violates is subject to the same one-strike-and-you’re-out approach.  While this seems even-handed (if overly dramatic) enough, in practice “can be” suspended or expelled is still dependent upon the judgment calls of teachers or principals who are responsible for choosing to report or classify such violations as flagrant enough to warrant punishment—leaving aside, for the moment, the even bigger questions about which form of punishment a “zero-tolerance” offense warrants.  It is disconcerting (to put it incredibly mildly), then, that studies continue to find that black students are punished more severely than their white counterparts, even though they aren’t worse-behaved.  A study from the Indiana Education policy center puts it this way:

Yet investigations of student behavior, race, and discipline have found no evidence that African Americans misbehave at a significantly higher rate (McCarthy & Hoge, 1987; Wu et al., 1982). If anything, available research suggests that black students tend to receive harsher punishments than white students, and that those harsher consequences may be administered for less severe offenses (McFadden et al., 1992; Shaw & Braden, 1992). In an analysis of the reasons middle school students in one urban district were referred to the office, white students were more often referred for vandalism, smoking, endangerment, obscene language, and drugs and alcohol. In contrast, black students were more often referred to the school office for loitering, disrespect, excessive noise, threats, and a catch-all category called conduct interference (Skiba, 1998). Thus, far from engaging in higher levels of disruptive behavior, African-American students appear to be at risk for receiving a range of more severe consequences for less serious behavior. (emphasis mine)

And, when we consider that black girls are more likely to be perceived as and reprimanded for being insufficiently well-behaved or ladylike, the fact that these girls were effectively kicked out of school for a fight that lasted less than a minute looks even more dubious than we might have initially thought.

But also, you guys?  There’s a video.  Now, you might expect a video of a fight that resulted in the denial of education opportunities for the involved parties for half a year to involve, I don’t know, blood or something, this one doesn’t.  In fact, while I’m not suggesting that fighting at school is awesome or even borderline acceptable, I’d venture to say that the most upsetting thing about this video is the gleeful narration of the amateur videographer, whose repeated cries of “The Camera LOVES it!” overshadow the under-30-seconds of flailing punches that can be exchanged before several teachers step in to break things up.  I wonder how it might look if there were different people in the video–as Hollywood movies, for example, have tended to portray schoolyard fights among middle-class white boys as normal, expected, and maybe even occasions for nostalgic reflections on coming of age.

This is a problem.  And it’s not just a problem because two girls were effectively kicked out of school for a bad decision (the NYT notes that Viktoria King is the only suspended student able to remain in traditional school, presumably because her mother was able to pay for a home tutor).  Beyond this tragedy—which the Court will hopefully address on Monday—there is the problem of the hidden racism in the perception and punishment of black students’ behavior.  Study after study has demonstrated that even well-meaning white folks find black faces more angry, and black actions more threatening, than those of whites.  This means that, as long as we fail to recognize that racism isn’t just about slurs, we’ll be unable to see the injustices that not only happen right under our noses, but that we participate in maintaining. When we combine this with the knowledge that young women of color specifically are more likely to be perceived and treated as loud and misbehaving (even when they aren’t fighting), and that the effects of zero-tolerance punishments are more likely to be greater for poor families of color that lack the resources to be able to, say, hire an at-home tutor, the whole situation is nauseating.  Kids deserve better.  We can do better.  But we won’t solve anything by pretending that zero-tolerance is smart, or fair—or that our society is any more “post-racial” than it is “post-gendered.”

UPDATE: For more on this and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” see the ACLU‘s blog.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 21, 2010 11:56 am

    “Zero-tolerance policies have the sneaky appearance of promoting a kind of Draconian fairness—anyone who violates is subject to the same one-strike-and-you’re-out approach. While this seems even-handed (if overly dramatic) enough, in practice “can be” suspended or expelled is still dependent upon the judgment calls of teachers or principals who are responsible for choosing to report or classify such violations as flagrant enough to warrant punishment”

    This stands out to me especially because it reminds me, in some ways, of the struggle we’re now facing over the new laws in Utah criminalizing miscarriage. When that bill first broke into the news, lots of feminist sites were discussing the problem of vaguaries in the language of the law. What, exactly, could “inducing” a miscarriage be interpreted to mean? Falling down stairs? Getting into a car accident without a seatbelt on? There are so many laws out there that pretend fairness to the public while leaving for lawmakers and law enforcers a giant gap of interpretation. You’re totally right that these zero tolerance policies do the same thing – leaving an open space for rule-enforcers to be bigots and bastards just as much as law enforcers can often be.

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