Getting to root of school discipline disparities

November 19, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

RUSSELL Skiba pondered the irony of being invited to Baltimore from Indiana for a mid-November speech.

"My guess is," he told the group gathered yesterday in downtown Baltimore, "you don't invite too many people from Indianapolis here during football season."

Indeed we don't. Fortunately, Skiba wasn't here to talk about that unpleasant Colts-Irsay business. But his topic was just as unpleasant.

Skiba focused on "The Disproportionate Impact of School Discipline Policies on Race and Gender." His speech was one in a series sponsored by the Open Society Institute about how school discipline policies have an impact on the criminal justice system. Skiba is the co-director of the Safe and Responsive Schools Project in Bloomington, Ind.

He has also written a book that challenges zero tolerance as a disciplinary method and another that looks at gender and racial disparities in school discipline.

"Some form of school discipline is absolutely imperative," Skiba began. "What we face is a national controversy about the best way to do that." Zero tolerance, which "tends to lead to students being suspended or expelled for trivial events," is not, Skiba stressed, the way to do that. Then he got to the meat of his argument, going to a 10-page handout, a mess of pie graphs, bar graphs and statistics that Skiba called a look at the disproportionate impact of school discipline on "students of color."

Skiba brought the message home locally whenever possible. The most common offense leading to suspension in Baltimore schools is, Skiba said, fighting. The most common one leading to suspension in Baltimore County schools is disrespect. Skiba's point was that suspension is not necessarily reserved for the most serious offenses.

On the matter of racial disparity, Skiba presented national data that claimed more black students are suspended than students of other races and black males are 16 times more likely to be suspended than white females. (The pecking order for suspensions, from most likely to least likely to get the discipline, goes black male, white male, black female, white female, according to Skiba.)

On two graphs that gave details on Maryland's suspensions by race from 1995 through last year, the data applied only to African-Americans, whites and Hispanics.

"How come Asians don't show up in this data?" I asked Skiba.

Skiba said he received the data from someone at the University of Maryland and didn't know why Asians weren't included. After his speech, I pressed the matter further: Doesn't excluding Asians possibly dispel the claim of racial disparity?

"It's kind of a methodology issue," Skiba explained. Some studies compare black students against all other students, some just against white students. But, Skiba said, blacks show up in disproportionate numbers no matter what methodology is used.

That might be fine and dandy if Skiba's topic had been "The Disproportionate Impact of School Discipline on African-American Students." But the title of his handout -- which differed from the topic OSI described -- included that phrase so loved and cherished by today's liberals: "students of color," a variation on "people of color." It should occur to our more discerning readers that Asian-American students are indeed of color, yet they showed up nowhere in the data Skiba presented.

But fear not. The folks at the Maryland Justice Policy Institute -- a pretty liberal outfit dedicated to finding alternative ways of dealing with crime and punishment -- dared to wade in where many fear to tread. Their Web site listed data for the 1998-1999 school year, breaking down suspensions in Maryland public schools by race. The data showed that 11.2 percent of Maryland's 307,906 black students received suspensions, a higher rate than other groups: 5.8 percent of the state's 463,280 white students, 8.8 percent of 2,840 Native American students, 5 percent of 33,580 Hispanic students and 2.2 percent of 34,065 Asian students. Maryland State Department of Education figures for the school year 2000-2001 show a black suspension rate of 56.76 percent, a white rate of 38.63 percent, a Hispanic rate of 3 percent and an Asian rate of 1.8 percent.

So, for Maryland, two of the "people of color" groups have lower suspension rates than whites. The lowest rate of all is for those "people of color" called Asian-Americans. Add to this the information Skiba provided indicating that white males are more likely to be suspended than black females and this racial disparity business becomes even more of a muddle. If Skiba's right, then the data suggest that gender, not race, is more of a factor in suspension disparities.

Skiba did, indeed, focus his attention on the gender disparity, quoting one school superintendent who asked "because we expel more males than females, does it mean that we discriminate against men, too?" Skiba presented data showing boys are disciplined more often than girls for fighting, endangering, throwing things, gambling, threatening, vandalism, spitting, sexual acts and indecent exposure. Girls are disciplined more often than boys for truancy.

Probably because they want to get away from the boys, we can bet.

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