Two years ago I chased down a single dad whose son attended schools in the same district as the infamous Missourian Michael Brown. Sixty-six-year-old Paul Davis, a cab driver and son of Mississippi sharecroppers, decided to pay $1,500 in rent atop his mortgage just to get his son Robert out of some of the nation’s most violent schools by establishing residency in a better school district.
Davis told me about the time in fifth grade other black boys had held Robert down until he peed on himself; the time bullies stole his book bag; the many times they attacked Robert—in classrooms, in hallways, in the lunch room.
In middle school Robert, who has mild autism, became a favorite target for bullies because his mom is white and his dad is black, so “he was the lightest kid in the whole school.” Eight days into seventh grade, another boy shoved Robert’s arm between two desks. The teacher called an administrator, who took Robert to the nurse’s room. The nurse wasn’t there, so the administrator sent Robert back to class. And that was the end of it. Davis’s blood boiled.
“You do things wrong, you outta here, and you ain’t coming back,” he said. “That’s what they shoulda been doing in Normandy [School District].”
Robert’s former middle school sounds like a nightmare: “A boy got killed in the lunch room,” Davis told me. The kids were playing a “game” that involved taking turns punching each other as hard as they could. “One kid punched the other in the chest, and the other died. There were no criminal charges at all—they said they was playing…They got what they call in-school suspension, where they go in a room with the other bad kids, because the federal government—whatever way they allocate funds.”
Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife
Davis was about to file a federal complaint when a judge ruled that because Robert’s school district had lost its accreditation the children there could transfer to nearby school districts, nearly all of which performed better. The receiving school districts complained so mightily over the next year, however, that the state revoked that option, sending all the Normandy kids back to their still unaccredited schools.
That’s when Paul said “Aw, hell, no,” dipped into his meagre savings, and bought his youngest child a ticket outta Dodge—just in time to avoid the Ferguson riots that began that very summer.
As everyone knows, racial unrest has only increased since then, and is in fact linked with public campuses through gangs, personal relationships, and protest movements. The highly publicized race-related violence in city streets this summer erupted first inside public schools inside many of the same cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and New York City.
Soon before school let out for a boiling hot summer of racial angst, local news reports depicted frightening levels of violence erupting inside the first school systems to implement new federally approved discipline policies. In Milwaukee, for example, teachers reported a spike in aggressive student behavior after the district began reducing its punishments for students to comply with federal guidelines. The stories are insane:
Gilbert Valdes was attacked by a third-grader who was transferred to his school after stabbing a girl in the face with a pencil.
And Jennifer was attacked by a middle schooler who had just pummeled a sub and had been transferred from another school after violent behavior there as well.
That girl had been placed in a special room for students with behavioral problems at Jennifer’s school, but the girl simply walked out, started roaming the hallways, and violently attacked Jennifer and another teacher.
Teachers in the Twin Cities threatened to strike over the levels of school violence they were enduring after their district began phasing in the new federal rules. The trigger incident, which came upon a wave of increased school violence:
a 55-year-old Central High School teacher was choked into unconsciousness after trying to break up a fight that started over an argument about football statistics. When the teacher intervened, a 16-year-old student allegedly picked up the teacher and slammed him into a table and chair, before slamming him to the floor. The teacher passed out for 10 to 20 seconds.
One Milwaukee teacher said a second grader slammed the teacher’s foot in a door and faced no consequences for it: “He was having some sort of emotional breakdown in the hallway and was kicking and slamming his body into the door, which was partially glass. I went out in the hall because the protocol is not to go after students, but I went out in the hall to make sure that, one, he wasn’t going to hurt himself and, two, that he wasn’t going to leave the building because that has happened as well.”
“He was in my classroom the next day,” she told Dan O’Donnell of Milwaukee’s News Talk 1130. “No repercussions. He sat in the office for an hour the day that it happened, but no, nothing happened.”
Thanks for the Ratchet, Feds
“Other teachers say that this is a common practice in their schools: Students will be issued a referral for misconduct and then ‘counseled’ before being returned to class without being formally disciplined,” O’Donnell reports. Why? Two levers the federal government is pulling, both related to school districts’ discipline numbers.
First, inside the Every Student Succeeds Act, which House Speaker Paul Ryan recently sped through Congress to replace No Child Left Behind, the federal government now includes measures besides test scores—such as annual suspension and expulsion rates—in ratings that influence funds and federal probes. Schools are technically supposed to report to the federal government every disciplinary action they take, and now they have more reasons to juice the numbers.
Second, back in 2011 former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told schools that consequences for bad behavior, not the behavior itself, was to blame for the “school to prison pipeline.” In 2014 the pair issued regulations telling schools they would be liable for federal investigation if they recorded data showing black or Latino students had committed more infractions than white or Asian students.
“Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race,” their subordinates wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter (emphasis added).
Catch that? If schools have rules that apply equally to everyone, but it just so happens that more students of one race break those rules more than students of another race do, the federal government will consider that rule racist and could prosecute the school. This even though, as Jane Robbins summarizes, research shows “racial disparities in discipline result from differences in student conduct, not from racism.” This means these school discipline rules are likely to increase, not reduce, racism.
“Socioeconomic factors such as family income and childhood stress are some of the best predictors of student behavioral problems, and since variations in those influences are not evenly distributed by race, schools will have to engage in racial discrimination when meting out punishments,” wrote University of Colorado-Colorado Springs associate professor Joshua Dunn. “The victims will not be limited to unfairly punished students. All students who come to school to learn will have their education disrupted by troublemakers. In urban districts, those motivated learners will be primarily students of color.”
Now For Ineffective Kumbaya Circle Time
In response to these federal rules, states including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Minnesota, California, and Washington have declared they will remove fewer violent students from classrooms through suspensions and expulsions.Children are not stupid. They have figured out that they can terrorize their peers and authority figures and get away with it now.
Schools are replacing stricter consequences with touchy-feely therapy sessions for troubled kids, which are less of a deterrent to bad behavior and often explicitly excuse it. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on one such program inside New York City schools:
One afternoon earlier this month, several students sat with three school safety agents. They spent three hours talking about prejudices based on hairstyle, neighborhood and background, and doing role-play exercises to understand each other’s views.
As a result of substituting these techniques for removing problem students from classrooms, citywide suspensions fell to 44,626 in 2014-15 from 69,643 in 2011-12, the Journal reports: “The past year’s citywide drop is largely due to the disciplinary code that took effect in April 2015, requiring principals to get approval from the education department before suspending students for defiance or insubordination.”
While these numbers will help keep the feds off administrators’ backs, it’s not clear they’re improving classroom safety. A report from an independent parents’ group using state data concludes New York City schools saw more violent incidents in 2014-15 than in 2011-12; even the city’s data shows that 2014-15 in-school violence roughly equaled that of the year previous.
‘Where is the justice for the students who want to learn?’