Learning While Black

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Sixteen year-old Kenneth Russell hits the books with the help of his father

No one is saying Kenneth Russell is an angel. The 16-year-old high school junior from Salida, Calif., is a C student with a filthy mouth who has been known to saunter into class on his own schedule. And, yes, as Russell readily admits, after a bout of name-calling with a white classmate last fall, he threw the first punch in a fistfight that left him battered and his adversary with five stitches over his left eye.

But is Russell actually a victim? The N.A.A.C.P. and some of his teachers think so. His father John has filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, charging that Kenneth was unjustly punished for the fight. Although officials from the local Modesto school district ruled the scuffle "mutual," the white classmate received a three-day suspension while Russell was sent home for a little more than a month and later expelled from his school and assigned to one farther from where he lives. "It's been hard catching up with my work," says Kenneth. "I lost out on a month of my high school life."

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For years black parents have quietly seethed about stories like Russell's. Now civil rights groups have given those silent suspicions a recognizable name: racial profiling. They contend that not unlike police who stop people on the basis of race, teachers and school officials discipline black students more often — and more harshly — than whites. The result: black students are more likely to slip behind in their studies and abandon school altogether — if they're not kicked out first. In Modesto, black students are 21/2 times as likely as their white peers to be expelled. This kind of treatment persists not only in the farm country of Modesto but also in urban districts like Minneapolis, Minn. During the 1998-99 school year, only one state (South Carolina) suspended 9% or more of its white students, but 35 states suspended that percentage of blacks, according to The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. The syndrome has even acquired a catchphrase: "learning while black."

In the past two years, advocacy groups in a dozen cities have taken up the cause, and the N.A.A.C.P. called on every state to submit a plan to redress discipline and other educational inequities by May 10. Last week the group announced that it would file civil rights complaints against the 22 states that missed the deadline. Meanwhile, legislators in Maryland and Rhode Island have set up task forces to study school discipline. In April, under a new state law, Ohio released suspension data broken down by race for each of its school districts. Earlier this month the Rev. Jesse Jackson addressed a conference at the Northwestern University School of Law titled "Dreams Deferred: A Closer Look at School Discipline."

Despite the current concern, the school-discipline gap is actually an old problem, first noted by social scientists a quarter-century ago. But with schools suspending nearly twice as many pupils as they did in the early '70s, the racial disparities have widened sharply. And today the penalties are stiffer. In the post-Columbine era, which has seen administrators reach for one-strike-and-you're-out, or zero-tolerance, policies, many schools no longer grant students a warning and a second chance, turning over even the most routine disciplinary matters to local police. "Schools now call in the police if a student is talking too much or doesn't do his homework," says Pedro Noguera, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

There is some evidence that black students are more likely to wind up in the dragnet. A study being released this fall by the Advancement Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, reports that black students, although they made up just 30% of the population of Miami-Dade County public schools in 2000-01, accounted for half the school arrests in that district. Says Judith Browne, senior attorney with the project: "This is no different from what happens on the street, only now it's school administrators abusing authority."

Predictably, talk of racial profiling turns very nasty very quickly. No matter the venue, the debate revolves around the same set of slippery questions: Do differences in data equal racism? Or could it be that blacks actually drive more recklessly or, in the case of schools, behave worse? Perhaps race is just incidental, and gender or class is the overriding factor. "This is not a simple matter, where the numbers speak for themselves," says Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. "In the past two years there have been five or six conferences on traffic-stop data, and there's still no consensus."

The school-discipline picture is even cloudier. "In isolated cases, there appears to be a difference in treatment," says Susan Bowers, an enforcement director with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights who investigates claims like the one filed in Modesto. "But often school districts have a justification, and race goes away." Researchers have theorized that anything from lead exposure to passive smoke may drive some students to act out more than others. The National Association of Secondary School Principals has deemed the discipline gap "an issue of socioeconomic status." The interim findings of the Rhode Island task force bolster this view. The group, after considering a student's race and whether he or she qualified for free lunch, concluded that "poverty is the single most pressing factor" associated with the disproportionate suspension of minority students in as many as a third of Rhode Island schools.

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