Coming Soon: Greater Chaos in Our Classrooms

In Fall 2017, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) sent letters to 43 school districts and charter schools across the state, announcing that they are under investigation for racial disparities in student discipline rates. Black and American Indian students in these districts are disciplined at higher rates than their proportion in the student population—and the department assumes that racist policies and practices are to blame.

MDHR has declined to make public either the letters or the school districts targeted, citing ongoing investigations.

At last, however, we have learned the identity of one such district: The Duluth Public Schools. The Duluth News Tribune recently revealed this in an article headlined “Duluth schools must fix suspension gap.”

According to the News Tribune, in 2016-17, black students—six percent of enrollment in the Duluth public schools—accounted for 33 percent of the district’s total suspension days. Students with disabilities were 18 percent of enrollment, but accounted for 53 percent of suspension days, and Native American students were four percent of enrollment but accounted for 15 percent of suspension days.

Duluth assistant superintendent Amy Starzecki confirmed that Duluth school officials are working with MDHR to change this:

The district is looking at its discipline data and past work done on suspension reductions and will work with principals and teachers on what’s needed, [Starzecki] said, for a plan to be firmed up yet this spring. She sees it as more of an agreement on next steps than corrective action.

“We very much want to engage in this process and learn from other districts,” Starzecki told the News Tribune. Going forward, she said, the plan

will probably include staff development and training on how to respond to the many kinds of trauma students deal with, and gaining understanding of various cultures—all things the district has done in the past, sporadically.

If Duluth educators are serious about “learning from other districts” about how best to approach race-based differences in discipline rates, here is what they are likely to discover:

Schools that bend to government fiat requiring them to discipline students based on the color of their skin, rather than their behavior, can expect a substantial increase in classroom violence and disorder. Usually, school officials attempt to reduce the racial discipline gap by lowering behavior standards and removing meaningful consequences for misconduct. The disorder that generally results makes learning far more difficult for all students.

In recent articles on this topic [here and here], I describe what happened after the public schools of St. Paul and Syracuse, New York, adopted policies of this kind.

I also explain why demographic disparities in student behavior should not surprise us. In fact, these disparities mirror other differences that can’t be wished away or attributed to racism.

For example, the Pioneer Press recently reported that black children in Minnesota are three times more likely to become involved with child protection services and to be removed from their homes than white children. Not coincidentally, that 3:1 ratio is also the ratio of black/white suspension rates in the St. Paul schools.

Is the disproportion in child protection statistics in St. Paul a result of racism on the part of social workers—probably among the most liberal groups in Minnesota? Far more likely, it reflects real differences in parental behavior and neglect, which can also influence students’ classroom conduct.

Rates of chronic school absenteeism show similar demographic differences. For example, in Minnesota in 2015-16, 37 percent of Native American and 21 percent of black students were chronically absent (defined as missing more than 10 percent of school days), compared with only 11 percent and 8 percent of white and Asian students, respectively.

Attempts to reduce the racial discipline gap by lowering behavior standards and removing meaningful consequences for misconduct harm all students.

The most obvious victims are the youngsters— many poor and minority— who come to school ready to learn but are unable to do so in increasingly chaotic classrooms.

Student trouble-makers also pay a price. Generally, these young people don’t learn self-control or respect for others at home. An orderly school environment offers their only chance to master these vital social skills. But if instead they learn at school that bad behavior and disrespect for authority carry no penalties, how can they ever hope to hold a job or become productive citizens?

Starzecki told the News Tribune that the Duluth school district’s plan to reduce black and Native American discipline rates will probably include training teachers in “understanding…various cultures,” to use the paper’s words.

Countless school districts have attempted the same experiment. In St. Paul, for example, from 2010 to 2015 or so, district leaders attempted to equalize racial discipline rates by spending millions of dollars on “white privilege” training for teachers, and dropping “continual willful disobedience” (and similar misbehaviors) as a suspendable offense.

The result, in many schools, was an anarchic environment where teachers and students feared for their physical safety, and serious learning became next to impossible. By the first quarter of 2015, the racial discipline gap was back in full force—with black students representing 30 percent of enrollment but 77 percent of those suspended.

The fact is, it is degrading—even racist—to suggest that some youngsters, notably black and Native American, simply can’t conduct themselves in the civil manner expected of others because their “culture” prevents this.

How can we best ensure an orderly school environment where all students can learn? The answer is a matter of common sense: Schools must set—and enforce—high standards of behavior, and make clear that all students can achieve these, regardless of the color of their skin.