The national discourse on police stops has focused discussion on issues such as racial profiling and distrust in the African-American community with law enforcement. But data that was released back in September shows Davis faces its own racial disparity in the schools – we have often noted the achievement gap but there is also a discipline gap, embodied by the suspension rates.
Suspension rates have declined since 2002-03 overall – probably as educators and administrators become more cognizant that suspensions are a less-desirable form of discipline. However, suspension rates are two to three times higher for African-Americans and Latinos as they are for whites, and the gap is even wider for Asian students.
In the most recent data available, in the 2013-14 school year, 6.3 percent of African-Americans and 4.1 percent of Latino students were suspended at some point in the school year, while only 2.2 percent of whites and less than one percent of Asian students were suspended.
Jann Murray-Garcia, who headed up the project by Leadership in Diversity Student Research Scholars said, “We’ve had incredible achievement in suspension rates.”
The students also reported in a survey that they see the discipline differential. Latinos and African-American students believe they are disciplined more harshly for the same behavior always or most of the time.
The findings locally mirror overall trends in US schools. For instance, a November 26 Washington Post article found that, in “Minneapolis, a low-income black student is six times more likely than a white student to be suspended for at least one day in a school year.”
As the Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools noted, “That discipline gap has major implications for students’ academic success — when children aren’t in school, they can’t learn.”
She said, “I have begun implementing significant changes to how we discipline students in Minneapolis.”
Included in the plan was “a moratorium on suspensions for students in first grade and younger for nonviolent behavior – where the racial disparity in discipline begins.”
In April, a group called Racial Justice Now in Dayton, Ohio, launched “a campaign calling for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions in pre-K and early elementary school grades, and for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for minor behavior infractions in all grades.”
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion have less satisfactory ratings of school climate and less satisfactory school governance structures.
A report issued by the APA at their summer of 2006 annual meeting found that zero tolerance policies in use throughout U.S. school districts have not been effective in reducing violence or promoting learning in school. The report called for a change in these policies and indicated a need for alternatives, including restorative practices such as restorative justice conferences.
Advocates see these reforms as a way to eliminate “the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
Suspension gaps mirror trends in terms of racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system. This summer, a report by the Sentencing Project found that racial disparity pervades the U.S. criminal justice system. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and Hispanic males are 2.5 times more likely. Not only are racial minorities incarcerated disproportionately, they are also likely to be sentenced more harshly than white defendants for similar crimes.
The War on Drugs has exacerbated racial inequalities in the criminal justice system through discriminatory law enforcement practices and disparities in sentencing laws, including the application of harsh mandatory minimum sentences. While the federal Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) of 2010 reduced the crack/cocaine sentencing quantity disparity triggering mandatory minimum penalties from 100:1 to 18:1, there is still disparate treatment in the sentencing of individuals convicted of offenses involving these two pharmacologically identical drugs.
Because African-Americans constitute 80 percent of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws, the disparity in sentencing laws leads to harsher sentences for black defendants for committing similar offenses to those of their white or Latino counterparts convicted of powder cocaine offenses.
At the local level, the data again calls for educators and the school district to examine discipline policies. They also need to look into policies that move away from suspension and toward more restorative practices.
In February of 2013, the Vanguard did a story on the efforts of now former Davis High Vice Principal Sheila Smith, who had been slowly implementing restorative justice principles whenever possible into peacemaking situations – anytime a conflict arises, whether it is between two students, between a student and a teacher, or even other situations as well.
In September of 2013, Da Vinci received a grant of $38,000 to fund a restorative justice initiative that would train all 30 staff members and students in conflict management, through mediation rather than discipline.
A report from the UC Berkeley School of Law, Henderson Center for Social Justice, examined a pilot program at a middle school in Oakland. They write, “Restorative justice is an alternative to retributive zero-tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion of students from school for a wide variety of misbehaviors including possession of alcohol or cigarettes, fighting, dress code violations, and cursing. Although zero-tolerance policies have resulted in substantial increases in student suspensions and expulsions for students of all races, African American and Hispanic/Latino youth are disproportionately impacted by a zero-tolerance approach.”
Proponents of restorative justice approaches, they write that they “have begun to promote school-based restorative justice as an alternative to zero-tolerance policies. Restorative justice is a set of principles and practices grounded in the values of showing respect, taking responsibility, and strengthening relationships. When harm occurs, restorative justice focuses on repair of harm and prevention of re-occurrence.”
The Vanguard also met with Ron and Roxanne Claassen, authors of Discipline that Restores, which they wrote based on principles developed jointly to apply restorative justice principles in a school setting.
“What we found is that, when people start to look at and hear about the concept of restorative justice as opposed to simply punitive justice, all have had experience with the fact that punitive doesn’t work very well,” Mr. Claassen said. “So the idea that there are some real live options is exciting. Even some people who have been most opposed at some point often turn out to be some of the strongest advocates.”
Restorative justice in the classroom, he said, does not mean that things are let go or that chaos is allowed to rule. It begins with the concept that whatever response there is going to be to misbehavior is going to be a constructive response.
“What we’ve been working at is developing a series of options so that,” he said, if one approach does not work, they have alternatives. “It is all to work in the direction of the student accepting personal responsibility for what they’ve been doing and thinking about how they want to move forward.”
“When there has been an infraction it can be a process for how you repair that infraction,” he said.
Are these ways to move away from traditional approaches, like suspensions that have been proven ineffective? Time will tell.
—David M. Greenwald reporting