Learning While Black

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DAVID PAUL MORRIS FOR TIME

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

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The conversation in Modesto has thus far been much less conciliatory. Despite repeated calls for reform from a small but vocal black parents' group, the district is not weighing any changes to its discipline code. Administrators will not comment on particular cases, but Jim Pfaff, Modesto's associate superintendent, points out that district policy stipulates a stiffer penalty for a student, like Russell, who inflicts injuries causing "stitches, loss of consciousness or a fracture." Pfaff attributes the high rate of black expulsions to an influx of black families from San Francisco "who do not understand" Modesto's discipline code, which provides few second chances — just consequences. He has little patience for charges of profiling. "Because we expel more males than females, does it mean that we discriminate against men too?" he asks. Even the black community has splintered over the issue, with some parents who want change accusing others of kowtowing to the district. "[She's] dealing with the people we're fighting, running to the white man with everything," sniffs Mack Wilson, education chairman of the local N.A.A.C.P., speaking of a black mother who joined with school officials to form Project Success, a group that tries to defuse small disciplinary matters before they escalate.

Russell is indifferent to the charges flying around him. He has more urgent matters to attend to, like the D and the F on his latest report card and whether they will affect his prospects for studying architecture in college. While parents and administrators continue to bicker, he has found his own remedy for the discipline gap. "You learn which teachers treat different ethnicities differently," he says. "And you learn when you're around them to stay quiet and keep to yourself."

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