How We Are Failing Our Young People; Let Me Count The Ways

Late last year, I was shocked to read in my hometown newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, that three months into the school year, a shortage of teachers due to massive teacher retirements last year and a poorly executed school reorganization plan had left the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) a mess.

DPS is not new to disturbingly difficult challenges. For decades, declining enrollments, a dysfunctional board of education, and the poor academic performance of students has plagued the school system.

The reason for this new set of trials and tribulations, however, boggles the mind.

Here is what happened. More than 800 of DPS's approximately 5000 teachers left the school system in response to a retirement incentive program designed to get highly paid teachers to leave. Just as DPS was weeding out some of its most experienced teachers to lower costs they decided to shut down 29 schools and reorganize 50 others.

Not surprisingly, a shortage of qualified teachers, especially for specialized classes – along with an unusual number of students transferring between schools, due in part, to the school closings and reorganization – has resulted in teachers overwhelmed with class of up to 50 students. The shortage of teachers in the classroom was so bad that many students received letter grades of "P" on their report cards because replacement teachers (when they could find them) felt like they did not have enough class time with the students to adequately assess their learning.

What a mess!

Unfortunately, Detroit is not an anomaly. In general, the nation's urban public schools face a litany of problems, ranging from over-crowded classrooms, low teacher expectations, and a shortage of experienced, well-qualified teachers to less than challenging work, a lack of parental involvement, and high rates of racial segregation and socioeconomic isolation.

For many black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, learning to read, mastering the mechanics of writing, and becoming proficient in math are problems they face on a daily basis.

For students of color, however, getting to and from school safely can also be a challenge.

Like most people, I was distressed by the accidental shooting that occurred in Los Angeles earlier this month. A 17 year-old student brought a loaded 9 mm semiautomatic gun to school in a backpack. After he reached into his backpack during break time, the gun went off. Two 15 year-old students were injured, one critically, after the bullet grazed her skull. The shooter – a 10th-grader who was on probation for a misdemeanor battery charge – was placed in custody and charged with two felonies: possessing a firearm in a school zone and discharging a firearm in a school zone.

The 2,400 student school, Gardena High, is not new to violence. Two students were shot at the school following an attempted robbery in 2003. Gardena High ranks among the districts lowest performing schools, with approximately 35 percent of its students dropping out of school.

So, in addition to worrying about whether their children are learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic, parents of students of color also need to worry about whether their children will make it home from school safely.

The parents concerns are not groundless.

Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2010, a joint report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and National Center for Education Statistics (BJS-NCES), provides a bevy of data on the nature of crime and violence in the nation's public schools.

Based on the perspective of students, teachers, principals and the general population, the report examines crime not only in schools but also on the way and coming from school. Consider some of the findings from the BJS-NCES report:

  • In 2008, 259,700 black students and 240,200 Hispanic students ages 12 to 18 were victims of crime while at school. More than 142,000 black students and 100,000 Hispanic students were victims of violent crime. Of these, 28,000 black students and 44,000 Hispanic students were the victims of serious violent crimes such as rape, sexual assault, or robbery. Blacks were more than three times as likely as whites to be victims of serious violent crimes while at school. Hispanics were more than four times as likely as whites to be victims of serious violent crimes while at school.
  • White students were less likely to report being in a physical fight anywhere than black, Hispanic, or Native American students. For example, in 2009, 28 percent of white students in grades 9-12 reported being in a physical fight either at school or off campus at least once during the previous 12 months, compared to 36 percent of Hispanic students, 41 percent of black students, and 42 percent of Native American students. Only 9 percent of white students reported being in a fight on school property within the past year, compared to 14 percent of Hispanic students, 17 percent of black students, and 21 percent of Native American students.
  • In 2007, black students (38 percent) and Hispanic students (36 percent) were far more likely to report gang activity at their school than white students (16 percent).
  • In 2007, nearly 9 percent of black students and 7 percent of Hispanic students ages 12 to 18 reported being afraid of being attacked or harmed at school compared to 4 percent of white students. Black and Hispanic students were more afraid of being harmed at school than they were being harmed away from school (5 and 6 percent respectively).

There is no easy way to stem school violence. Many districts deal with the problem by instituting zero-tolerance policies, punishing students harshly for even minor infractions of their system's code of conduct. However, a growing body of research makes it clear that the routinization of extreme punishments such as suspensions, expulsions, and transfers to disciplinary schools may be doing more harm than good.

For example, according to a recent report by Youth United for Change, the Advancement Project, and the Education Law Center, the Philadelphia school system's zero-tolerance policy is having a devastating effect on the district's students, in particular, its students of color. The authors of the report criticize zero tolerance in Philly's schools as "a failed policy that makes city schools less safe, criminalizes or pushes out of school tens of thousands of students every year, and creates a School-to-Prison Pipeline."

A new report by the New York Civil Liberties Union draws similar conclusions about the harmful effects of zero tolerance. "Sadly, the growing reliance on suspensions in New York City schools all too often denies children – often the most vulnerable and in need of support – their right to an education," according to NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "This harsh approach to discipline, combined with aggressive policing in schools, pushes kids from the classroom into the criminal justice system."

Students of color experience disproportionately harsh punishments under zero-tolerance policies. The NYCLU report showed that though black students make up only 30 percent of the students enrolled in city schools, they accounted for more than half of all suspensions every year from 1999-2000 to 2008-9. The authors of the Philadelphia school district zero tolerance report also present data on racial disparities in how punishment is meted out. During the 2008-09 school year, black students had 35 suspensions per 100 students; Latino students, 23 per 100; white students, 14 per 100; and Asian students, 5 per 100.

As a society, we should be doing everything we can to guarantee that every child enrolled in school has access to a quality education in a safe and secure environment. Unfortunately, that is not the case for far too many students, especially students of color. Without a doubt, violence and disciplinary issues are serious problems that need to be addressed. However, zero-tolerance is not the answer.

Both reports mentioned above offer recommendations that if implemented will more adequately address the violence and disciplinary problems in our nation's public schools and, hopefully, end the school to prison pipeline that zero-tolerance policies promote. Each makes a compelling case for more resources to improve student's access to guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists as an important step in the right direction. It's time to change course and give our young people the help they need.

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