Cutting suspensions also cuts school safety

Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carborro City Schools are both struggling to reduce suspensions among black students.
Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carborro City Schools are both struggling to reduce suspensions among black students.

Everyone agrees the statistics are disturbing: During the 2015-16 school year, black students were eight to 10 times more likely than whites to be suspended in the Wake, Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems.

Disagreement arises concerning the causes. To people of good faith on the right, a host of factors — including family structure, childhood stressors, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and the failed social policies meant fix those problems — explain this disparity. While recognizing that racism may influence some student/teacher interactions, they believe it is a minor factor. Students are suspended because of their behavior, not their color.

Many on the left assert racism drives these disparities. They argue that teachers and administrators, infused with explicit and implicit bias, discriminate against black students — even in majority-minority schools led by African-Americans. President Obama’s first secretary of education, Arne Duncan, succinctly expressed this view when he said the suspension rates were “not caused by differences in children. It is adult behavior that needs to change.”

In response, the Obama administration warned school districts in 2014 that it would launch civil rights investigations against them even if their suspension policy was “neutral on its face … and is administered in an evenhanded manner.” All that mattered was the outcome; racial disparities were clear evidence of discrimination.

The Department of Education subsequently investigated hundreds of districts, including Wake County, which has embraced the Obama approach.

Quick reality check: Does any rational person actually believe that there is little difference in the conduct of black and white students — that African Americans were suspended at ten times the rate as whites in uber-liberal Chapel Hill-Carrboro system in 2015-16 because its schools are targeting them?

But there you have it.

In fairness, the DOE’s goal was laudable: to encourage teachers to become more tolerant and understanding of disruptive behavior and for schools to offer remedies such as counseling instead of suspension so that kids could stay in the classroom. More problematic was a related effort urging districts to think twice about reporting crimes — including potential felonies — to law enforcement in order to address the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

What’s the result?

Suspensions are down. But a federal commission recently found that schools are less safe — leading Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to recommend a rollback of the Obama guideline.

As Jason Riley reported in the Wall Street Journal: “In Oklahoma City, principals told teachers not to request a suspension ‘unless there was blood.’ After school districts in Los Angeles and Chicago softened their policies to curb suspensions, teachers reported more disorder, and students reported feeling less safe. Following a similar move in Philadelphia, truancy increased and academic achievement fell. Schools in Wisconsin that followed the guidance also saw subsequent reductions in math and reading proficiency.”

Some schools, including those in St. Paul, Minnesota, have seen marked white flight.

A recent survey of North Carolina teachers found growing concerns about school safety. That’s probably not the only reason Wake County parents are fleeing traditional public schools but it is likely a factor.

Nevertheless, school leaders in Wake and Durham counties say they will continue with their current policies aimed at reducing disparities in the name of racial equity and justice.

The evidence, however, shows that this approach is based on a false ideology of racism that has created a range of unintended consequences — especially for minorities, who are stuck in increasingly unsafe schools.

The numbers identify the problem — but not the solution. While reminding us that some kids need tremendous help, our public schools may not have the knowledge, skills and resources to provide it. We can’t go back and we can’t stand still.

How should we move forward?

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.