by James A. Bacon
The drumbeat of studies and pseudo-studies purporting to show endemic discrimination in public institutions continues with the release of a new report by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“Virginia schools have a crisis on their hands,” states the press release. “Waves of students are being pushed out of school through the widespread, discriminatory overuse of suspension and expulsion.” Last year Virginia schools issued more than 126,000 out-of-school suspensions to approximately 70,000 students. One fifth were issued to elementary pre-K and elementary school students. The majority of suspensions were for “relatively minor, non-violent, subjective behavior like ‘disruption,’ ‘defiance’ and ‘disrespect.'”
Moreover, the suspensions were disproportionately issued to males, African-Americans and students with disabilities. African-Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to receive short-term suspensions.
The report recommends “five proven methods” of addressing misbehavior in school, including social and emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, threat assessments and restorative practices.
Needless to say, the supposed discrimination against African-American students is an illusion. Some of the greatest disparities exist in school systems in majority-black cities with black superintendents, black-majority school boards and predominantly black teachers and administrators, such as Richmond and Petersburg. The problem isn’t that the students are black, the problem is that disruptive students are more likely to come from dysfunctional families characterized by no father, substance abuse, domestic violence, and chronic economic insecurity, which, for various historical reasons, affects far more black households than white households (although, in a trend that should please those who fret over such disparities, is affecting an increasing share of white households as well.)
The larger story can be seen in the chart above, taken from Virginia Department of Education annual reports on discipline, crime and violence in Virginia schools. Over the seven years leading up to 2013-2014, the number of crimes and disciplinary infractions reported by Virginia schools plummeted from 372,000 incidents to 146,000 incidents — down 60%. Over the eight years up to 2013-2014, the number of suspensions declined gradually but steadily from 199,000 to 146,000. Expulsions, not shown in the graph, have dropped more than half to 479.
Something is going on, but I’m not sure what it is. The period between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011 showed a mind-boggling decline in disciplinary incidents and then suddenly decelerated to a level almost identical to the number of short-term suspensions. Call me a cynic, but I doubt the numbers reflect the reality in Virginia schools. I would conjecture that administrators’ reporting practices changed far more than the behavior of students in hallways and classrooms.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the touchy-feely approach to school discipline advocated by Legal Aid Justice Center is actually working. It would be a wonderful thing indeed if we could find ways to improve the behavior of the 70,000 students who received suspensions. Getting booted out of school, even temporarily, only subtracts from their time to learn. On the other hand, those 70,000 students disrupted the educations of far more students who came to school ready to learn. As documented here, the cost to non-disruptive students, who themselves are disproportionately black, is substantial. The Legal Aid Justice Center doesn’t seem to notice them at all — perhaps because they cannot be portrayed as victims of discrimination.
I’d like to hear from readers. Is school discipline improving as much as the numbers suggest? Or are the numbers a mirage? Are local administrators ignoring infractions in order to report numbers that please their bureaucratic overlords in Richmond and Washington?