The Department of Education recently released data showing that there is a significant disparity between the discipline that students of color receive in public schools and that given to their white counterparts: black students, especially black boys, face much harsher discipline than others, with black students making up 18% of the youth studied in the survey but accounting for 46% of those suspended more than once.

The debate over why this is the case has touched on everything from socioeconomic factors, such as time spent parenting, to flat-out racism on the part of school administrators. But New York City principals have come forward to lament that they are not surprised by the numbers because they face a “cultural disconnect” that drives harsher discipline. Teachers and principals do not understand their students and often misinterpret their behavior as overly-aggressive and therefore worthy of punishment. Allison Chang at WNYC reports:

“Many of my students live in high-poverty neighborhoods, and a sign of weakness is, unfortunately, timid behavior,” said [Principal Rashid] Davis.  “So they learn early growing up, in order to not be picked on, they have to meet like with like.”

That behavior then filters back into the school, said Musa Shama, the principal of Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, Queens.  

“Just because it happens out in the neighborhood doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make its way back into the school building,” Shama said.  

The issue for educators is, Shama said, how do you teach a student that what happens on the street at home isn’t appropriate on school grounds? It’s an extremely tough question, he said, because problematic behavior still needs to be met with severe consequences, like suspension.  

“If they’re not severe, then what ends up happening is that those folks that are on the fringe think it’s okay to replicate,” he said.

The question that Shama asks, “how do you teach a student that what happens on the street at home isn’t appropriate on school grounds?”, is perhaps the most troubling one. When it comes to responding to the very-specific incidences of how others treat you and the fear of showing weakness, how can the system teach young people what is appropriate when they already come into the system with a very concrete idea of how to survive? Is it even acceptable for the administration to dictate what is and is not normal behavior?

Speak on it!


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