Racism or Bad Behavior?

More black students than ever are getting the boot from public schools. Things are so bad that the NAACP announced it would hold public hearings in some cities on the racial disparities in school discipline.

It's none too soon. In a 1999 report on school discipline, the U.S. Department of Education found that while blacks made up less than 20 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 called "Educational Apartheid in America's Public Schools," the Children's Defense Fund found that black students are still expelled and suspended in disproportionate numbers to whites.

A recent study by the Advancement Project and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on school discipline procedures in Denver, Chicago and Palm Beach County, Fla., found that many black students wind up in police stations and courtrooms after being expelled.

In the past year, black students have been dumped from classrooms or hauled to jail for using a cell phone, talking in class or using foul language. And those being severely punished are getting younger. Last year's police arrest (and manhandling) of a Florida five-year-old ignited a firestorm of protest.

The child's arrest cast an even harsher glare on the stiffer punishment school officials dish out to black students who misbehave. DAs prosecute misbehaving black students in greater numbers because of racial fear, ignorance and overreaction to bad acts.

Urban riots and civil disturbances have reinforced white fears that young black males are 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, stalking black neighborhoods and filming busts for 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 boys-in-the-hoods heading for their neighborhoods next.

Also, school principals have near dictatorial power. They set the standards for what is acceptable behavior, and when 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.

The federal Gun-Free Schools Act, passed in 1994, requires that states order their schools to boot students 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 made when the student that caused the injury acted in self-defense.

The stories of students wielding weapons 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 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 that violent acts on campus will not be tolerated. But policies that merely dump students into makeshift alternative schools or out on the streets demoralize students and parents. The Children's Defense Fund report noted that the heavy-handed ousting of black students from schools is a major factor in the grossly high dropout rate of black students from many inner-city schools. Many of those students are also tagged with criminal records that dog them for life.

School officials must boot only those who are truly a classroom menace, and they are not all, most or even many black students.

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