Lawprof and member of the United States Civil Rights Commission Gail Heriot is no greater fan of the School to Prison pipeline than anyone else. And yet, her approach comes from a direction that few consider, and fewer still find acceptable.
During the Obama Administration, one of the Department of Education’s primary missions was to stop schools from suspending or otherwise disciplining African American students at higher rates than white or Asian American students:
… One of its primary strategies would be for its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to pore over statistical evidence from every school district, looking for evidence of racial disparate impact in discipline. When a school district was found to be disciplining African-American students at a significantly higher rate than Asian or white students, the school district could expect to be subjected to an investigation. As one media report put it, rather than waiting for “cases [to] come in the door,” the Obama Administration “plans to use data to go find [civil rights] problems.”
Baked into this approach are three things of significance. First is disparate impact. Second is empricism. Third is the elimination of an outcome that has proven societally disastrous, that black students grow up to be black prisoners.
But there is a fourth aspect to the DoE’s approach, one that is tacitly understood by every grocery clerk with a checklist.
Almost everyone has had experience with distant bureaucracies. Even when their edicts are reasonably nuanced, by the time they reach the foot soldiers on the ground (in this case classroom teachers), any subtlety has disappeared. “Don’t discipline minority students unless it is justified” is naturally understood by school district administrators as “Don’t discipline a minority student unless you are confident that you can persuade some future federal investigator whose judgment you have no reason to trust that it was justified.”
In turn, this is presented to principals as “Don’t discipline a minority student unless you and your teachers jump through the following time-consuming procedural hoops designed to document to the satisfaction of some future federal investigator whose judgment we have no reason to trust that it was justified.”
Finally, teachers hear the directive this way: “Just don’t discipline so many minority students; it will only create giant hassles for everyone involved.” This is in the nature of bureaucracy. Those who complain that schools overreact to governmental directives are howling at the moon. It is inevitable.
Regardless of the validity of the first three, and the assumptions upon which they’re premised, the lofty goals at the top of the bureaucratic food chain are simplified, then oversimplified, then simplified again, until they’re ultimately carried out in the classroom by teachers who are instructed to do nothing to produce numbers that will bring the wrath of Washington down upon their school.
But does this solve anything?
The danger should have been obvious. What if an important reason more African-American students were being disciplined than white or Asian students was that more African-American students were misbehaving? And what if the cost of failing to discipline those students primarily falls on their fellow African-American students who are trying to learn amid classroom disorder?
This is what’s meant by the “soft prejudice of low expectations,” as if black kids can’t control themselves and not misbehave in school, so we need to cut them a special break. And as Heriot notes, the burden of the break falls on other black kids who want to learn.
But that, unfortunately, isn’t the end of the story. What other studies show is that when white students engage in the same disciplinary problems as black kids, they don’t get suspended or expelled as readily. Teachers are wont to treat students the same for the same conduct, finding rationalizations for cutting white kids a break when they can’t manage to excuse black kids. This is the input side of the School to Prison pipeline, as students who get suspended and expelled don’t end up learning, don’t end up going to Harvard, don’t end up vested in society.
The question seems to be whether we’re better off with a Type 1 or Type 2 error, but this is a false dichotomy. These are all kids, children whose futures depends on the ability of a teacher to teach them as well as guide them toward a future as productive, law-abiding and educated adults. When the input side is blown on racial assumptions that treat black kids more harshly than white kids for the same conduct, the outcome is predetermined.
Heriot’s point, that ignoring disciplinary breaches by kids based on race is not only counterproductive, but harmful to the very students it purportedly seeks to help. The other kids in the class can’t learn if the teacher’s time is squandered on dealing with disciplinary problems because they’re given rules precluding their dealing with the problem.
But if they can tolerate a white kid with disciplinary problems, then there’s no rational basis for the inability to deal with any other kid disrupting their classroom. Perhaps the problem here has less to do with kids being disruptive than it does with teachers being incapable of doing their job to control disruption and recognizing their own prejudice in dealing with it.
Even more than teachers, however, is the dictates from on high that filter down to the classroom to not think but run the numbers to keep the DoE bean counters at bay. If we cannot expect teachers to police their own failures, their own prejudice, to think, then these kids have little chance of not getting shoved into the pipeline. Yet another example of the soft prejudice of low expectations, but this time of the very people charged with educating our youth. Is it really too much to ask of a school administrator, or a teacher, to think?