In today's latest depressing, but not surprising news, The Root is reporting on a new study that reveals that black students are routinely given suspensions and harsher punishments than white students for similar offenses. The National Education Policy Center study found that school suspensions for non-white students have gone up by 100 percent since 1970. As a product of integrated, suburban schools in St. Louis County, I'd have to say, "No joke."
When my sisters and I were little we all attended Keeven Elementary in the Hazelwood School District during a time when it transitioned from a mostly white school in a mostly white neighborhood to a nearly all-black school in an nearly all-black neighborhood. In my class there were only two non-black students. Even though my teachers were very good and quite resourceful, even though the PTA was extremely involved, even though my mother, a former teacher, was a regular school volunteer, the district routinely labeled our school as "bad" no matter what happened. We were told, constantly, that we were bad by our principal and administrators and when a single, isolated incident happened between three students playing "doctor" when I was 10, an incident no one even witnessed but the three kids involved, the entire fifth grade was punished for it, with boys and girls being forcibly separated on the playground.
Naturally, since we were told as much that we were bad, I assumed that when my youngest sister and I moved to the "white" end of the district the students would be less disruptive and much better behaved. In fact, I think we were looking forward to it even though our mother insisted that white children were not magical, flower-scented angels who were not only better behaved, but smarter and better looking than us. Nope, shockingly, the white kids were just as "bad," meaning not bad at all, but sometimes problematic as individual children will be from time-to-time. But there were some distinct differences.
"Bad" at one school was "boys will be boys" at another.
When an 11-year-old white boy gave a teacher a black eye during a gym class related fit the teacher blamed herself, arguing that the boy had not taken his medication that day. It was a pretty stark contrast from my gym class experience where I was undiagnosed with asthma and forced to run a mile that often took me an hour to finish and would cause me to vomit. When I was unable to breathe afterwards and other students pointed out that maybe someone should get the damn nurse I was berated for being a "complainer" and "lazy."
And I was a fit, thin, straight A student with no disciplinary issues. I could do almost everything in gym class but do a pull-up and run a mile. But I was seen to be as much of a "liar" as all the other kids. Because it didn't matter.
At the black school I didn't fight back against bullies who picked on me because kids who "fought" were suspended and if you fought enough times you were labeled, eventually forced into the learning disability program and then finally sent to the alternative school. And if you had an energetic, albeit unfocused kid before being forced in that program, you most certainly had a kid with a learning disability after months turn into years of nothing but discipline, babysitting instead of learning, medication and complete boredom.
I learned at an early age that when black suburban kids at mostly black suburban school get into a fight, it was "gang related," even if there was no "gang," just a bunch of "County Brownies" who saw the movie "Colors" and decided they were "Crips" for Halloween that year. (For contrast, few years later, after the Malcolm X bio-pic came out, they all decided they were Muslim. Because they were kids and therefore kind of ridiculous.)
But white suburban kids at a mostly white suburban school in the same district who play "tack on chair" pranks on the teacher or fight each other were labeled as "those poor kids who didn't have their meds that day and now we need to have a heart-to-heart talk to get at what could be troubling them." I don't think it ever occurred to my classmates at Keeven in the 80s to put a tack on anyone's chair. I thought that was just something from old episodes of Dennis the Meance and Bart Simpson. Tacks hurt and injuring a teacher was a one-way ticket to disciplinary hell on burnout row.
Also, the teachers I'd had at my black school who'd been tough, but fair were encouraged to be intellectually demanding of the children. For their efforts were mostly well-respected and liked by both the administration and the parents. But the same teacher, specifically my hard-boiled fifth grade teacher who I thought I'd hate, but actually turned out to be one of my best instructors, moved to my sister's new white school was told she was making things "too hard" for the students. She kept insisting that children be able to name all the states and point them out on a map, then be able to also name all the state capitals for extra credit. Something she had done with us "awful, stupid" black kids with much success, but at the white school my old teacher was the problem. How dare she DEMAND the kids learn HARD things! They had sports practices and Girl Scouts and who knows what. Who needed geography?
And when people wonder what happened to a lot of the black boys I started out with in school, it usually runs along the line of "They were targeted as criminals around the time of the first grade and never were able to shake the label." While I had supportive parents who told me that I was not bad and a good student and that all black people were not bad and that some people are just awful racists, other black kids did not have parents as involved as mine and just got unfiltered hate, paranoia and abuse. If a teacher was mean to me, or said something awful -- like that I should be grateful for slavery because if not I'd be an uneducated, starving heathen in Africa -- my mother would come up to the school and explain things in a way that would lead to an apology from that teacher.
And after surviving kindergarten through 12th grade in integrated public schools, I grew up to be an evangelist for DON'T SEND YOUR KIDS TO A SCHOOL AND NEVER GET INVOLVED!
Don't assume that the teachers want to teach your kid. Don't assume anyone will look out for your kid. Don't assume they are safe. Assume nothing! And this goes no matter the race or gender of child. White people shouldn't assume other white people will give a rat's ass about their brats either. Because there's always those one, five or ten teachers who don't. And black parents shouldn't assume that the one black teacher or administrator cares about black kids just because you're both black. Often the ones who caused the most damage were those self-loathing black administrators and teachers who all sounded like they were related from the educator in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," sending us off into the world with envelopes promising to endorse us, but were really filled with marks about how unremarkable and stupid we were and not to be trusted.
Out of precaution, all parents should pretty much expect a school to have issues until that school proves to you it is not run by latent racists and that the librarian isn't an abusive pervert (as our librarian from hell was). Court orders don't change the hearts of human beings. Being involved is the only way to guarantee your kid is getting the education our tax dollars are paying for. Even "nice" people will turn up some latent racist crap simply because racism and prejudice is so rife in our society that even well-meaning people will fall into the trap of it.
Our pediatrician, and later a teacher, tried to convince my mother that my eldest sister had a learning disability because she didn't like coloring. The kid taught her own self how to read from watching and listening to my mom read to her as a baby, but she must be disabled, because even though she walked, talked and read early, was assertive and quite engaging and chatty, SHE DIDN'T LIKE COLORING! That was a crisis.
My mother said "Thanks, but no thanks. She's fine." Big Sis went on to be an electrical engineer, then later, an accountant. So she has two degrees to go with her made up learning disability. My pediatrician wasn't a bad guy. He was actually a pretty good pediatrician. But people just LOOK for pathologies with black kids, even if you're a black kid who comes from a healthy loving home. You're black. Therefore something must be inherently wrong with you. You can't possibly have asthma. You must be lazy and lying. You can't possibly not like to color. You must have a learning disability. Little Suzie wouldn't call you a nigger on the playground, she's a nice girl who has many black friends!
But if you're white and you beat up your gym teacher when you're 11, you were just having a bad day because the nurse didn't give you your anti-depressants. And you can't suspend him because that would label him before he goes off to junior high and it's so terrible for a little boy who's just sick to be labeled as a problem maker. That'll follow him for the rest of his life! Kids are just kids unless they're black kids. Then they're future prison inmates and must be contained.
Whatever, public school. I'm so on to your bullshit.