During the Obama administration the Department of Education promoted the notion that the difference in the suspension rates of African-American and non-minority kids are a result of racism. Local education officials signed on enthusiastically.
A less racially-obsessed administration might have attributed at least some of the distortion to the disproportionate number of African-American kids who grow up in single-parent households, where one struggling parent (usually the mother) may be unable to provide discipline. But no–according to the DOE, it was the teachers racism, even if hidden, not the behavior of some unruly students, that was the problem.
Racial equity became the core principal of discipline in the school system. The public schools in public schools of St. Paul, Minnesota embraced the cause, altering normal disciplinary procedures to prevent unruly minority children from suffering consequences of their behavior. The result: a terrible upswing in violence.
In an essay entitled "No Thug Left Behind," Katherine Kersten describes how St. Paul tried to eliminate the supposed racial bias that was leading to lopsided suspension rates:
Demographically, the St. Paul schools are about 32 percent Asian, 30 percent black, 22 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Native American. In 2009–10, 15 percent of the district’s black students were suspended at least once—five times more than white students and about 15 times more than Asian students. In [Superintendent Valeria] Silva’s view, equity required that the black student population be excluded from school at no more than twice the rate of Asian-Americans, the group with the lowest rate of suspensions.
Silva attacked the racial-equity discipline gap at its alleged root: “white privilege.” Teachers unfairly punish minority students for “largely subjective” behaviors, such as “defiance, disrespect and disruption,” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2012. To overcome their biases, teachers must learn “a true appreciation” of their students’ cultural “differences” and how these can “impact interactions in the classroom,” she said.
Silva hired a California-based diversity consultant, the Pacific Educational Group (PEG), to compel St. Paul school staff—from principals to janitors to bus drivers—to confront their own bigotry and to achieve “cultural competence” in working with “black and brown” students. In PEG-inspired “courageous conversations” about race, teachers were instructed to begin every statement with a phrase like “as a white woman, I believe,” or “as a black man, I think.” They learned that “shouting out” answers in class and lack of punctuality are black cultural traits and that what may seem to be defiant student behavior is, in fact, just a culturally conditioned expression of “enthusiasm.”
After implementing “white privilege” training, Silva moved to eliminate what she called the “punishment mentality” undergirding the district’s discipline model. In an effort to cut black discipline referrals, she lowered behavior expectations and dropped meaningful penalties for student misconduct. In 2012, the district removed “continual willful disobedience” as a suspendable offense. In addition, to close the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Silva adopted a new protocol on interactions between schools and the police. The protocol ranked student offenses on five levels and required schools to report only the worst—including arson, aggravated assault, and firearm possession—to police. School officials were strongly encouraged to handle other serious offenses—such as assault, sexual violence, and drug possession—on their own. For a time, the district administration actually tied principals’ bonuses to their track record on reducing black discipline referrals.
I could continue to quote and marvel at the naive approach, and I urge you to read the entire article to discover the full array of equity programs instituted in St. Paul. But now we must turn to what results these "reforms" produced: it was a nightmare.
Violence grew with fights of the sort that would previously have been between two students developing into melees, sometimes involving up to fifty students. One stairwell fight involved thirty students–but the number was that low only because the police were called and the teaching staff held a door shut to prevent reinforcements. Many students came to view themselves as "untouchable" as packs roamed the halls.
Teachers suffered injuries and in once instance police found that a child could only be subdued with a Taser. A teacher threatened with death told a newspaper that she had instituted a secret knock for friendly students to prevent opening the door to somebody who wanted to harm her. Another teacher was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury after attempting to break up a cafeteria fight. Students who consistently disrupted schools were not disciplined because of the drive for racial equity.
In 2015 desperate officials were again resorting to suspensions–with seventy-five percent of these being African-American students. Silva, whose policies were responsible for the disaster, left after the election of a new school board–but not before the good taxpayers bought out her contract for a reported $800,000.
The Obama administration argued that a racial equity-based discipline system (which might be called a system of no discipline) would end the so-called school to prison pipeline because black kids would not have suspensions on their records. Being allowed to threaten teachers somehow seems better than being suspended?
As usual with progressive policies, those most harmed are those in whose name absurd policies are adopted:
Who pays the greatest price for misguided racial-equity discipline policies? The many poor and minority students who show up at school ready to learn. The breakdown of order that such policies promote is destined to make these children’s already-uphill struggle for a decent education even more daunting.