As my third-grade son walked down a school hallway last week, a teacher stopped him and accused him of stealing something. He told her he didn't know anything about the incident, but she pressured him to confess. She even asked her students—who were also in the hallway and heard the whole exchange—if they thought he was the thief.
It's tempting to write off the incident as one educator's lapse of judgment, but, in fact, my son's experience is a symptom of a larger pattern of discrimination in our nation's schools. Data released this week by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights provides hard evidence of prejudice against black and Latino students in America's education system.
After surveying 72,000 schools—collectively serving 85 percent of the nation's students—the Civil Rights Data Collection found that although black children comprise just 18 percent of students, they represent 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. They’re three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Seventy percent of students arrested or referred to police are black or Latino.
It's not that these kids misbehave more often than students from other backgrounds. Research has shown that black students are disciplined more severely than white students, even when they commit less-serious offenses. Teachers often dole out harsh consequences to black kids for perceived crimes, like "having an attitude" or "not respecting authority." I've observed classrooms in which teachers sent black children—especially boys—to the office for talking out of turn or getting up to sharpen a pencil without asking permission, while white kids saw no consequences for the same actions.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters this week that the CRDC data shows that "the everyday educational experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise." That's a start, but other educators have addressed the problem in far more direct terms.
"Our discipline numbers are horribly skewed, and any given day you can visit the in-house suspension room of a high school and see a disproportionate amount of black youth sitting there not learning," says Kelly Wickham, an assistant principal in Springfield, Illinois. Wickham says she used to work at a school in which the librarian stood at her door during passing periods so she could stop black boys with sagging pants to write them up. "These kids see the injustices and call racism where they see it, only to be told that they're playing the race card," she says. "White teachers seem more interested in making them obey than they are in teaching them."
The CRDC data shows black children are also more likely to be retained and labeled as special needs. Forty-nine percent of third graders nationwide who were retained at the end of the 2009-10 school year were black. By fourth grade, that number climbed to 56 percent.
Los Angeles-based writer Britni Danielle, a former middle-school teacher, says black and Latino boys are often written off in public schools before they get a chance to prove their abilities. "Some teachers are afraid of them and will do anything to get them out of the class," she says. Danielle's son's first-grade teacher recently told her that her child is struggling in almost every subject. But the teacher's report didn't match up with what Danielle sees him doing at home—because of her background in education, she knows that her son’s challenges with learning to read aren't unusual for a child his age. She says black and Latino parents must take control of their children's education themselves and use classroom education as a backup plan. "Don't even think the teacher will help them do better," she says. "Assume they won't."
The teacher who accused my son of stealing might not be consciously discriminating against him, but that doesn’t change her impact: He was afraid to go to school, afraid she might corner him in the hallway and try to force him to say he stole. And I know this won't be the last time my son will be treated in a discriminatory way in a school system in which only 40 percent of black males graduate. "It's a systemic issue that comes with delicate conversations and racially centered solutions," Wickham says.
Wickham believes the CRCD data has to be "front and center" so that all stakeholders can take honest looks at their actions and develop real solutions. Teachers and administrators who care about equality need to "fight this battle amongst their own colleagues," she says. If that begins to happen—if we all work toward the cause of equity and excellence at our schools—the next round of OCR data might reflect a different story.