The racial divide in school discipline Black suspension rate: Race is not the only factor, but it can't be summarily dismissed, either.

January 25, 1996

SCHOOLS TODAY aren't as strict. But neither are parents. Teachers allow students more freedom and -- reflecting what they do at home -- more students challenge their teachers. Ironically, the result is more opportunities for a child to get in trouble requiring disciplinary action, especially when it's an adolescent exhibiting that age group's typical questioning of authority. And even more so when that teen-ager is influenced by a popular culture that includes "gangsta rap" music promoting life as an outlaw.

The pressure on young black men to act like the people they see in magazines and music videos is probably a factor in school statistics that show African-American students get chosen an inordinate number of times for punishment. That is especially so in suburban schools where black children often feel compelled to be as "with it" as their inner-city counterparts.

In Howard County -- where black students comprise only 16.6 percent of the high school population but account for 36 percent of the students suspended -- school officials nonetheless concluded that "when grade point average, attendance, prior suspensions, gender and length of enrollment are held constant, a student's race or special education status is unrelated to suspension from school." But the report also acknowledged a gap in academic achievement between black and white students, leaving the expectation that until that gap is closed, blacks will continue to be disciplined in disproportionate numbers.

Other suburban systems share the problem. In Baltimore County, a third of black male high school students were suspended or expelled during 1993-1994, compared with about 15 percent of white males. In Anne Arundel, discipline rates for blacks have also been disproportionately high. School officials shouldn't conclude such disparities have nothing to do with race, any more than one can make the blanket judgment that race is all they're about. Administrators must admit that the pop culture influencing young people's behavior is frequently aimed at racially distinct audiences. Too much of the message it sends to black children is that they are supposed to be troublemakers. It is parents' responsibility to regulate these influences on their children. But school officials must realistically acknowledge what they are up against.

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