Race dramatically skews discipline, even in elementary school

This story is part of The Seattle Times' Education Lab, a series investigating solutions in education.
Photos by Ken Lambert and data analysis by Justin Mayo / The Seattle Times

The Seattle Times

“After a while, I didn’t even want to go,” Malik said during an interview at his home. “It just felt like nobody wanted me there.”

Malik hoops

Administrators denied Carmen Johnson’s request to clear her son’s record, but Malik is recognized as a particularly bright kid, athletically gifted and gregarious, even by teachers who perceive him as “always in the middle of the drama.”

Struggling to understand why their child is so frequently sanctioned, Malik’s parents have arrived at only one answer.

“Race,” said Carmen Johnson. “It’s strictly race.”

The school rejects this interpretation. It is the Johnsons who are preoccupied with race, they say, such that the family has twice called police, complaining of harassment.

“We treat all our kids fairly,” said Principal Debbie Nelsen. “If someone’s being disrespectful in class, we contact the parents — no matter who the students are. It’s not racial, it’s not gender. It’s all behavior-based.”

That rift in perception exemplifies the tension around student discipline, where increasingly poor, minority students clash with a teaching force that is 87 percent white.

Further, say some psychologists, kids from different cultures are raised to connect differently with adults.

“There is research that shows white kids and Asian kids are geared toward rewards. They’ll do what you ask in order to get the prize, or the grade, or because the authorities said to,” said Caprice Hollins, former director of Seattle’s Office of Equity, Race and Learning Support.

“But for kids of color, particularly African-American kids, it’s about relationships. Once they have that relationship with you — once they respect you — they’ll do anything, because they don’t want to disappoint.”

Hollins, who is black, left Seattle in 2008, after her trainings on institutional racism and white privilege came to be seen as political correctness run amok. Still, she believes a philosophical shift was beginning to take root.

“We all stereotype. We all judge people, and it’s unconscious,” Hollins said. “But it’s very hard for people to own that because you’ve got good, kind, moral teachers who are seeing behavior in some kids differently than in others. It’s just like the research that came out a few years ago saying we pay more attention to boys than girls.”

Nonsense, said Mike Magruder, a veteran teacher at Madison Middle School.

“I don’t care what color they are,” he said. “A knucklehead should go.”

Getting farther behind

Washington schools are not legally bound to provide tutoring for students under suspension, nor any help with behavior, leaving many to return farther behind and, often, en route to more problems.

The link between this cycle and poor academic outcomes has become clear enough to inspire action in many other states. Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law eliminating suspension for any child accused of defiance in third grade or younger. Minneapolis (under federal watch) has decreed that all minority-student suspensions for nonviolent behavior be reviewed at the highest levels. Baltimore and New York City are making similarly sweeping changes.

Yet Seattle lags. Though overall discipline rates are headed downward, the racial gap persists. Asked if city schools were doing anything to address it, Ruth McFadden, head of the district’s discipline office, said, “I don’t know.”

Similar passivity long existed at the state level. Despite a reputation for progressivism, it has taken years for Washington to systematically track school discipline.

Last month, the first wave of comprehensive, district-by-district information was finally released: Of 69,754 suspensions and expulsions meted out in 2013-14, the vast majority — 78 percent — went to kids from low-income families, most of whom were students of color.

“It’s always been happening, and now we can all see it — now we have the data,” said Nate Bowling, an African-American teacher in Tacoma, where discipline rates are particularly high. “But we’re not making any systemwide interventions. It can’t be OK to only send brown kids to the office all the time, it just can’t.”

Many educators say the raw numbers disguise important facts. Most important, that the bulk of referrals come from a handful of teachers, and fail to show behavior improvements made year to year within one class.

“That said, disproportionality is real. Schools are a subset of society,” said Jennifer Wiley, principal of Seattle’s Franklin High School, which educates a largely minority population and, not surprisingly, logs high minority-suspension rates. “We’re all caught up in the intricate web of racism. This is deeply rooted stuff.”

Whatever they see as the cause, on one point educators appear to agree: If the goal of discipline is changing behavior, revolving-door suspensions do not work.

In Seattle, a third of all suspended students get sent home repeatedly, and last year three-quarters of these repeaters were kids of color — including an eighth-grader at Madison Middle tossed eight times; a third-grader at Highland Park Elementary booted nine times; and a seventh-grader suspended 10 times from Whitman Middle School.

“It’s completely backward to think that by kicking kids out, you’re going to get them on your side, respecting you,” said Jennifer Harris, a policy analyst with the Governor’s Office of Education Ombuds, which handles more than 1,000 citizen complaints each year — many of them about discipline. “There’s tons of research showing that this doesn’t help students learn pro-social behavior. We’ve just turned them into nonproductive members of society.”

Recent racially charged riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., make even plainer the connections among disengaged young people, corrosive mistrust and disastrous outcomes.

“I started to develop the mentality that it was me versus them, like they were more against me than there for me — sort of the opposite of what school is supposed to stand for,” said Tomas Abebe, 18, a black senior at Chief Sealth High School in West Seattle, who estimates he has missed 50 days due to suspensions, many of which he considered unjust.

A slight young man with large round eyes, Abebe has spent years puzzling over what he sees as a pattern of being singled out.

“A lot of these incidents fell into that ‘open-to-interpretation’ area,” he said. “It’s like, if a white student goes ‘This rule doesn’t make sense to me — I’m not going to follow it,’ people say, ‘You’ll go far in life, thinking for yourself like that.’ But if a black student does, it’s ‘That kind of attitude is going to get you in trouble.’ ”

Racial divide improved

Discipline rates in Seattle have improved since 1997, when 26 percent of black teens were suspended from high schools (compared with 9 percent of whites), and the prohibition against corporal punishment was only three years old.

But back at Garfield, Principal Howard still stays late, agonizing over the numbers and his conscience.

Howard is no softy. The son of a former principal himself, he has sent hundreds of black kids out — even when he knows they’ll go home to dysfunction or drug abuse, even when he believes they might not come back.

Yet he returned from the Monroe prison trip chastened, and in the past year has overseen a 59 percent drop in the suspension of black students — the largest decrease of any Seattle high school.

This does not mean he has cracked the code.

Howard now views discipline as evidence of something much more complicated than misbehavior alone. Schools are a sorting system, he believes, one that trains some kids for success while funneling others toward failure.

If educators truly cared about changing this model, he said, their entire blueprint would be reworked with more counselors for kids who struggle and a priority put on stronger teacher-student relationships — something far beyond a consciousness-raising workshop.

“Racist teachers?” Howard mused. “Not intentionally. But as a district, if we know this is going on, why haven’t we taken any real steps to address it as a system? This is a Seattle conversation. The system is us.”