Black Students Under Fire

More black students than ever are getting the boot from public schools. Things are so bad that the NAACP plans to hold public hearings nationally on the racial disparities in school discipline. It’s none to soon. In a report on school discipline, the U.S. Dept. of Education in 1999 found that while blacks made up less than twenty percent of the nation’s public school students they comprised nearly one out of three students kicked out of the schools.

Five years later nothing had changed. In a report the Children’s Defense Fund branded “Educational Apartheid in America’s Public Schools,” it found that black students are still expelled and suspended in disproportionate numbers to whites. And that’s not all. A recent study by the Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on school discipline procedures in Denver, Chicago and Palm Beach County, Florida found that black students are getting expelled or suspended in high numbers, and many of them also wind up in police stations and courtrooms after being expelled.

In the past year black students have gotten dumped from classrooms or hauled off to jail for using a cell phone, talking in class, or simply calling names. And those being severely punished are getting younger. The arrest and manhandling by police of a five year old in Florida earlier this year ignited a firestorm of protest. The child’s arrest cast an even harsher glare on the stiff punishment school officials routinely dish out to black students who allegedly misbehave.

Many teachers and administrators expel and suspend more black students than white students, and school officials and DAs prosecute them in greater numbers, because of racial fear and ignorance. The urban riots and civil disturbances reinforced white fears that young black males are eternal menaces to society. When some young blacks turned to gangs, guns and drugs and terrorized their communities, much of the press titillated the public with endless features on the crime prone, crack plagued, blood stained streets of the ghetto. TV action news crews turned into a major growth industry stalked black neighborhoods filming busts for the nightly news. The explosion of gangster rap and the spate of Hollywood ghetto films have convinced many Americans that the thug lifestyle was the black lifestyle. They have ghastly visions of the boys-in-the-hoods heading for their neighborhoods next.

Also, school principals have near dictatorial power. They set the standards of what is acceptable behavior or not, and once that’s done and a student is deemed a discipline problem, there isn’t much parents can do to reverse a decision to suspend or expel. In fact, studies have found that poor and minority parents are less likely than white, middle-class parents to challenge school officials’ decisions to suspend or expel their children. There are two other reasons that school officials grossly overreact to the real or perceived bad behavior of some black students. The federal Gun-Free Schools Act, passed in 1994, requires that states order their schools to boot students out for weapons possession in order to qualify for federal funds. (School officials later expanded the list of violations for student expulsion to include fighting and other violent acts.) California’s zero-tolerance school laws mandate that a student be expelled for one year for infractions that include drug sales, robbery, assault, weapons possession and fights that cause serious physical injury. The only exception is if the student that caused the injury acted in self-defense.

The horrific stories of students wielding guns and knives on campuses and assaulting and terrorizing other students have deepened public panic that murderous youths are running amok at schools. School officials zealously enforce get-tough policies to prove that they will do whatever it takes to get rid of disruptive students. The danger is that school officials that reflexively view young blacks as violence-prone, menace-to-society thugs will turn zero-tolerance into a repressive tool that victimizes black students.

The aim of a zero-tolerance school policy is to send the stern message to students that violent acts on campus will not be tolerated. But zero-tolerance policies that merely dump students into makeshift alternative schools or out onto the streets demoralize students and parents, reinforce the notion among blacks that school officials impose a racial double-standard in punishing blacks and whites and increase disdain among minorities for public education.

The Children’s Defense Fund report noted that the heavy-handed oust of black students from schools is a major factor in the grossly high dropout rate of black students from many inner city schools. That’s not the worst of it. Many of those students also are tagged with criminal records, and those records dog them for life. That’s a prescription for grinding another generation of young blacks into street, gang and prison fodder. That will end when school officials stop the racial profiling of black students.

EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON is a columnist for, an author and political analyst.