School discipline, race and fairness

The New York Times raises a familiar complaint about racial disparities in school discipline. We have heard for years that black males are disciplined more than teen males of other races, but this article focuses on black teen girls facing more punishments. But is it a racial issue or a behavioral issue? Are government schools really mistreating students because of their skin color?

The bottom line question is this: Are black students simply misbehaving more often than white students?

The statistics on discipline by race, on the surface, do indicate that blacks are being treated differently than white students. The problem is that statistics do not tell the whole story. If black students commit X percent of disciplinary infractions then one would expect black students to get that same X percent of the punishments. One cannot only rely on statistics to determine if the system is unfair. The only real way to determine fairness is to examine, school by school, who is committing the offenses and whether the punishments for those offenses is equal or close to it.

Even the anecdote the Times opens with does not necessarily indicate racial injustice. What it indicates is greed. The student who could pay restitution was punished much less severely than the student who could not pay restitution. If both girls had been white, or both had been black, would the outcome have been identical? Are there other past disciplinary cases where the student whose family could not pay restitution was punished more harshly?

We do know that children and teens who grow up without a father are statistically more likely to have behavioral problems, in school and out of it. We also know that out-of-wedlock births are epidemic among blacks. The dissolution of the black family cannot be ignored in the discussion of disciplinary problems in school and the racial statistics on school discipline. It is counterproductive and myopic to not take a complete view of the problem.

Discipline statistics are a good starting point, not an ending point. Much more investigation is needed to determine what is causing the disparity and what, if anything, to do about it. Unless, of course, the goal is to simply inflame racial tensions, get more subscriptions and get more people clicking on ads.

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