Kansas City Public Schools hasn’t been accused of unfairly singling out black and Latino students for discipline.
But it’s not because the problem doesn’t exist. And that’s the opinion of school board president Airick Leonard West.
It’s because the district’s demographics don’t allow the contention. High numbers of minority students offer little chance of pinpointing disparity, said West, who consults nationally on the issue.
The problem is that some students, usually black and Latino males, are more likely to be disciplined, while others receive lesser punishment for similar behavior. Wednesday, the Department of Education teamed with the Department of Justice in issuing guidelines to stop the problem.
There’s good reason for the so-called zero tolerance standards in extreme cases, such as if a student brings a gun to school. But too many schools have begun to lean toward zero tolerance for nonviolent problems. Or they reach to have the student criminally prosecuted in reaction to a range of troubling but not dangerous behavior problems.
Out-of-school suspensions in particular have become too easy a tool for schools. It’s the educational equivalent of parents throwing up their hands and proclaiming, “I give up!”
Public school teachers have long argued that they don’t always get the administrative support they need to keep an orderly classroom, to respect the time of students who aren’t causing problems. But West thinks the disparities found by numerous studies begin with adult attitudes that view some kids as “inherently broken in some way.”
West believes that much of what needs to happen is a cultural shift for educators. Rather than focusing solely on discipline as punishment, schools should be places where expectations, attitudes and actions focus on children learning to lead a disciplined life.
He also trains local high school students in peer mediation. It’s giving students the ability to dissipate conflicts before something becomes problematic in the school.
Often students just need better coping skills, especially if they are surrounded by adults who don’t function well. West symbolically notes that students sometimes “bring a hammer” to a situation that requires a much “softer tool.”
Note that in the most recently publicized cases of violence in schools locally, it was a parent coming in and causing havoc. Not the child.
“These are the young people who need us to not give up on them the most,” West said.