Disclaimer: I’m currently a legal intern for the ACLU of Michigan.
I went a virtually all-black grade school until seventh grade, when I switched over to a more integrated school – about 60% white, 40% black. Everyone knew about the “good kids” and “bad kids” in school, but I never really thought about the fact that the “bad kids” at that school were almost uniformly black, and often hounded for the most asinine of transgressions, from laughing about something in a book when the teacher was in a bad mood to taking off coats on the playground in winter. White kids who acted out in the same ways were often treated as class clowns, laughing along with the teachers and made to do constructive punishments/tasks in obvious efforts to get them harness that joyful creative energy towards something positive, which was really easy to see from detention.
Any more, many schools don’t do detention, they just suspend or expel. Combined with zero tolerance policies, often for subjective transgressions, being a grade school or high school student is perilous – whether you behave well or behave poorly, your continued presence in school is often subjected to the whims of teachers or administrators in dealing with you.
The ACLU of Michigan prepared a report on this phenomenon, talking about the “school-to-prison pipeline” – the pattern of suspensions and punishment that lead to dropping out, and particularly to criminal activity. It’s uniquely dangerous for black males, because we’re so big and threatening from the age of nine onwards. I remember being 4’7″ and screaming “thug life” from the seat of my Huffy at passersby…well, I would, except usually Chip N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers was on, and that was far more important.
One of the things the report discusses is the vastly disproportionate numbers of punishments that black students receive – in Ann Arbor, for instance, black students make up 18% of students but 58% of suspensions, with numbers like these are repeated in districts across the state. I’ve had this discussion with people before, and the explanations for this usually attempt to pin it on parental involvement, or culture, somehow believing that the apogee of black culture is mouthing off to a teacher, because that makes sense.
I have a basic rule in life: if a group of people seem to be acting illogically given what are seemingly clear reasons not to, then there’s likely something else at work. We could accept that black kids and black families are just drastically more likely to train themselves to do disruptive things that will be cracked down on in schools, but that makes virtually no sense whatsoever. I think there are a couple of things at work, the first being that assumption by many teachers that black students and black males in particular are more aggressive and therefore more likely to transgress initially. The second is that, from the perspective of black students, being more likely to be treated in a capricious and heavy-handed manner by authority figures makes you less likely to respect those authority figures.
There’s a reason we don’t prescribe the death penalty for every crime. If you’re going to be put to death for stealing a loaf of bread, then you’re not going to be put to super death for mugging someone, or raping them, or killing them. It works the same way in schools – when almost every transgression is met with suspension or expulsion, teaching a kid that asking “Why?” when a teacher says stop is the same thing as bringing a gun to school is a great way to encourage a kid to bring a gun to school. Why would you have trust in a system that targets you for overwhelming punishment for almost anything you do, and lets others skate for the same actions?
Anyway, read the report, and remember that the victims of zero-tolerance policies aren’t just the honor students who bring a butter knife to school for their lunch, it’s the normal kids who have a bad day and end up getting tasered for it, or who get ten-day suspensions for “insubordination” because they repeated something that someone else got away with.
**Image of Bobb’e J. Thompson added because that kid is both hilarious and likely to get kicked out of any school you put him in for posing a comedic threat of splitting to people’s sides.