Double Standard in Discipline?

September 28, 1993

Why are African-American students being suspended more often than whites in Howard County elementary schools? School officials have been picking at that thorny question as they search for ways to curb this dilemma.

The raw figures aren't immense: Only 46 out of about 19,000 elementary school students were suspended last year. But 52 percent were black, even though African-American children accounted for only 14 percent of the county's elementary school population.

After two years of unsuccessful efforts -- during which the suspension rate for blacks in elementary schools actually increased -- administrators are turning their focus away from the children causing the problems and directing attention instead on how teachers may be provoking bad behavior. This approach could prove extremely controversial, angering the teachers' union and creating a situation where black children could receive preferential treatment. Few things condemn a program to failure faster than the creation of a double standard and the lack of teacher support.

For his part, Howard Superintendent Michael Hickey says preferential treatment is not the goal. Still, he says attention must be given to how teachers handle discipline, including the possibility that black students may be treated more harshly by white teachers than are white pupils.

Jacqueline Brown, human relations director for the Howard school system, offers an example that black students may be more prone to act out when a teacher embarrasses them in front of classmates -- and come in for further punishment. That's a fine analysis, so long as it extends to white students, who may be equally embarrassed when a teacher reprimands them before their peers.

Howard's school officials have taken positive steps to reduce suspensions at the middle and high school levels, including the advent of peer mediation groups, in-house suspensions and special classrooms for severe discipline problems. The number of suspensions at all grade levels has dipped slightly since the 1991-92 school year.

But the programs at those secondary levels have been put into effect for all students. The same principle should guide changes in elementary schools. Using different educational approaches to reach different types of students is one thing, but singling out groups for treatment in discipline sends the wrong message to the targeted group and creates resentment among others.

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