More resources, not more suspensions, is the real solution to discipline problems

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Recently, Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman told school principals that the district plans to focus on data analysis as a first step toward improvement. There’s one statistic that the district ought to immediately turn its attention to: suspensions and expulsions of African-American boys.

Our newly-released report on discipline in CPS found that black boys are clearly being punished far more harshly than their peers. The suspension rate for black males is up to five times higher than that for other student groups. Black boys make up over 60 percent of all students expelled from school—even though they’re only one-fourth of the student population. The racial disparity is similar in suburban Chicago, and in other major cities. But Chicago is the worst: The city is now No. 1 on a list of 10 major urban districts when it comes to suspending students.

Catalyst couldn’t obtain a major piece of the puzzle: data on why students have been suspended, which isn’t reported by race or gender. Still, as the American Civil Liberties Union’s Lori Turner put it, “the numbers alone are troubling.” When punishment for one group of students is so clearly out of proportion to their enrollment, something’s undoubtedly amiss.

Some of you reading this post might say “Well, so what? If kids are talking back to teachers or being disruptive, they should be kicked out of school.” Others might blame poor parenting, saying schools can’t be expected to make up for what children aren’t getting at home. And certainly, serious offenses such as bringing guns or drugs to school or threatening teachers shouldn’t be tolerated.

But kicking students out of school isn’t the solution. Too many black boys are already out of school, walking the streets and getting lured into trouble. The strong correlation between school absences, course failures and dropping out makes suspensions even more problematic for African-American boys, who are already more likely to quit school than their peers in Chicago’s public schools. As one principal put it, suspensions and expulsions are often “a straight path to jail” for black boys.

So what can be done to solve the problem? As our report found, a mix of factors is at play that give rise to the soaring suspension rate, including racial bias and stereotyping, cultural mismatches between teachers and students, and, in some elementary schools, a lack of tolerance for noisy, boy-type behavior.

Yet the story of three teen-aged boys at Dyett High offers a ray of hope.

As freshmen four years ago, the boys fought often, were labeled troublemakers, got suspended time after time and failed course after course. They showed all the signs of being headed toward dropping out.

Instead, two of the boys have graduated and are headed to college. One hasn’t yet earned his diploma, but plans to do so and has a job lined up.

They didn’t beat the odds without help, though. And that help came from the school, proving that with sufficient resources, kids can become success stories instead of statistics of failure.