Educations hall of shame, but whos to blame?

Sikivu Hutchinson | 8/31/2011, 5 p.m.

Sitting in the sparsely filled auditorium of Gardena High School in Los Angeles at the beginning of an annual senior awards ceremony, I looked around, and wondered; where the hell are the Black parents? I was attending the ceremony to see students from my Women's Leadership Project program--the majority of whom are African American and en route to four-year colleges--receive much-deserved awards for service and academic achievement.

Although Black students comprise around 32 percent of the school's student body, the vast majority of the award recipients were Asian (5 percent of the population) and Latino (60 percent of the population). The underrepresentation of African American student awardees is the flip side of a national crisis that has received exhaustive, hand-wringing coverage but elicited little activist groundswell or targeted outrage.

The apartheid culture of African American suspensions, which pervades urban school districts like Los Angeles Unified, has become a ho-hum-business-as-usual human-rights violation. Data on disproportionate African American suspension rates is an acknowledged part of national discourse on education "reform."

The subject made the news again recently with the release of yet another study by the Council of State Governments on suspensions in Texas schools. Attorney General Eric Holder even deigned to weigh in, calling the study's findings a "wake-up call."

The report seemingly revived mainstream attention to the long-standing debate about racial disproportionality and school discipline.

But to those who are critically conscious of the role disproportionate discipline plays in the school-to-prison pipeline, this latest report was no revelation. It concluded that Black and Latino students were disciplined far more harshly than White students who'd committed similar offenses.

Black students were more likely to get off-site suspensions and transfers to alternative schools.

White students were more likely to receive counseling and on-site suspension or detention.
As a result, students of color were more likely to drop out of school. The report suggested that disparate discipline was symptomatic of deeply entrenched negative teacher perceptions about Black and Brown students.

As progressive African American educators have long maintained, the picture in the LAUSD is even more egregious. After a careful study of the data of middle schools and high schools across the district, African American students were disproportionately suspended and OT-ed ("opportunity" transferred to other schools) regardless of the racial background of the faculty and administration or racial demographics and socioeconomic background of a given school.

In some schools, the ratio is astounding, an open secret that reflects profoundly on the degree to which African American students in "post-racial" America are stigmatized by intractable stereotypes about Black criminality, pathology and dysfunction.

From South L.A. to the Westside to the Valley, the implication is the same: African American students are natural hellions who need to be controlled, neutralized and heavily policed to maintain the institutional "sanity" of chaotic urban schools.

In a recent discussion about adult perceptions, one of my students noted that some teachers appear to be "scared" of their students. Being scared of students means that teachers have low expectations, are more inclined to be reactive in their response to disruption, assign busywork and execute hierarchical classroom management. Consequently, some teachers will let them sit in racially segregated cliques, talk, disrupt and generally do what they want; then refer only those who they feel are most threatening out of class.