No Numbers Game on School Discipline


January 22, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

It certainly appears to be an obvious, blatant case of discrimination.

This identifiable group of students is suspended from Harford high schools and middle schools almost four times as often as their schoolmates, who make up a majority of the schools' population.

Harford school officials remain silent about this obvious disparity in use of the suspension sanction.

That this disproportionately penalized segment of school society a documented minority draws no suggestion from officialdom of prejudice or bias or outright discrimination.

Authorities shrug their shoulders and suggest that it's just the way things always have been.

According to statistics recently released by the Harford County school system, nearly four times as many male students are suspended as female students in a given year.

That amounts to 2,884 male pupils suspended during the 1993-94 academic year, compared with only 790 female classmates. In 1992-93, the ratio was similar: 2,747 boys to 693 girls.

Is it a gender issue, or a multi-gender issue, the expected result of mixing male culture and female culture in the same classrooms?

Is anyone in the school system declaring this a priority problem in need of urgent investigation? Is the school board trying to get to the root of this apparent discrimination?

Has a school system committee been formed to explore the reasons for the inequitable treatment of the two sexes, or to infuse the curriculum with multi-gender education? Has the National Organization for Men written letters of outrage over this insensitive handling of male-culture conduct?

If gender is destiny, if male social structure tends to encourage anti-social behavior within the parietal walls, then why isn't the school system attempting to deal with the root causes?

The answer is that virtually no one believes these suspension statistics reflect a teacher prejudice against schoolboys. Or that male pupils are held to higher standards of conduct than are females. Or that their sex makes them easy targets for more severe academic punishment.

If more boys than girls are sent to the principal's office or told to stay out of school for a few days to punish their misconduct, it's generally accepted that the punishment is warranted.

Students who disrupt classes or attack other pupils, who bring contraband into the school buildings or play hooky -- they deserve to be suspended, regardless of their gender.

There's no reason to look for an excuse, or to argue for special treatment, or to suggest that their higher suspension rate reflects insensitivity by school authorities.

There are certainly social, economic and cultural factors that can promote behavior problems in children of either sex -- the problems of dysfunctional families, the overwhelming burdens of single-parent families are among these factors. But these are not social causes that affect only the male children in those households.

Does anyone claim that boys are inherently, because of their sex, more disruptive to the education system than are girls? Should that imply the need for a more permissive system of conduct for males than for females? Or does it suggest the necessity of a tighter, stricter discipline system for boys in order to rein in their inclination to disrupt the co-educational public school system?

That, of course, leads to concern that all boys will be looked upon as troublemakers, as subjects of preventive discipline regardless of their individual actions and their individual classroom conduct. Surely that's not a policy that our society, and our Harford County school board, would endorse.

No, what an enlightened and sensible school administration would enforce is a standard code of conduct for all students, regardless of gender, and make sure those rules are well understood by the entire student body. Not a double standard.

If there are individual circumstances that require counseling and other help for a child, let those resources be made available by the schools. For boys and girls, without sexual bias.

If the statistics show that there are more boys being suspended and punished, then that is simply a numerical reality. It may require that more individual attention and assistance will be given boys in those circumstances -- which, in turn, should not be perceived as a discriminatory over-allocation of resources for males.

In any case, it's a matter of individuals and their responses to the code of accepted behavior in our schools, not a gender-group concern. It's not a matter for political posturing by male interest groups. It's a matter of individual responsibility.

Children should not be unfairly labeled for punishment, or for preferential treatment, simply because of their chromosomes. Regardless of how the statistics are stacked.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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