US Civil Rights Commission Turns to American Experiment on School Discipline Issue

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights member Peter Kirsanow

Today the United States Commission on Civil Rights will hold a public briefing in Washington, D.C., entitled The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Intersections of Students of Color with Disabilities. The briefing will examine the race-based school discipline policies imposed on public schools by the Obama administration in its notorious January 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter.

At the briefing, the Commission will hear presentations from various parties, including advocacy groups and academics. In the open comment period that follows, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow will read into the record the following statement from Center of the American Experiment’s Senior Policy Fellow Katherine Kersten, which he will also use in examining witnesses:

The underlying premise of the 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter is that students should be disciplined on the basis—not of their conduct as individuals—but of their membership in a racial or ethnic group. This flawed premise has led to a host of disastrous, if unintended, consequences in schools where it has been applied.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, race-based discipline policies have generated violence and disorder, and produced an environment where learning is often impossible. The reason? The policies have created “a segment of kids who consider themselves untouchable,” in the words of one veteran teacher.

Supporters of the “disparate impact” theory of school discipline claim bigoted teachers are to blame for racial disparities in discipline rates. They assume that students of all races and ethnicities—as groups—will conduct themselves the same way in school, despite vast group differences in socio-economic background and family structure. Racial/ethnic differences in suspension rates are attributed to discrimination, by default.

But the data on which the 2014 guidance was based reveal that, across the nation, the suspension rate for white boys is more than twice that of Asian and Pacific Islander boys. According to “disparate impact” logic, this must be because teachers are prejudiced against white boys. But isn’t it more likely that white boys’ rate is higher because, as a group, they misbehave more often than their Asian peers?

That appears to be the case with black students. Their discipline rate is higher than other students’ because, on average, they misbehave more. In fact, a groundbreaking 2014 study by J. P. Wright and others in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that the racial gap in suspensions is “completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student.”

In St. Paul, Asian students—primarily of Hmong and other Southeast Asian backgrounds—are flooding out of district schools to escape the violence and disorder that have followed the district’s adoption of disparate-impact-based discipline policies.

Proponents of race-based discipline policies say they seek justice for poor and minority children. But it is poor and minority children, struggling to learn in anarchic classrooms, who suffer disproportionately from misguided equity policies. So long as disorder is allowed to flourish in the name of statistical parity, our nation’s yawning racial learning gap will continue to widen.

At the same time, race-based discipline policies teach troublemaking students that bad behavior and disrespect for authority carry no adverse consequences. How can these students ever hope to hold a job or become productive citizens with such a distorted view of reality?

Finally, advocates of race-based discipline routinely — and baselessly — denounce our schools as bastions of institutional racism. Tragically, by doing so, they lead minority students to distrust the one institution that offers them a sure route out of poverty.