City Principals Say Cultural Rift Explains Higher Discipline Rate Among Blacks, Latinos

Monday, March 12, 2012

education, classroom, school, school supplies, class, teachers, students (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

New York City school principals say they are not surprised by the new data released by the federal Department of Education showing black and Hispanic public school students in the city have been disciplined more severely than other students.

Many principals — who are ultimately responsible for deciding who gets suspended or expelled — cited cultural disconnect between administrators and urban students as the reason why suspension numbers for minority students are so high in many city schools.  

Black students comprised 18 percent of the students in the national survey, but accounted for 46 percent of those suspended more than once.  

More than half of all suspensions were given to black students during the 2010-2011 school year, even though they make up about a third of the city’s students, according to the city’s Department of Education.  

Hispanic students represent about 40 percent of the public school students in the city, but received 37 percent of the suspensions during that academic year, data shows.

Rashid Davis, from Pathways In Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was among the principals who said black and Latino kids get suspended disproportionately more than their peers because they’re often misunderstood by teachers and administrators who did not grow up in the same urban neighborhoods as the students did.

Davis said school staff end up interpreting what is only rough play as menacing or aggressive behavior that merits immediate harsh punishment.  

“Your first reaction may be to go with a zero-tolerance approach, and that zero-tolerance approach will equal more discipline, more negative discipline,” said Davis, “as opposed to putting some measures in place to help students make better choices.”

A little more than 100 students attend Davis’ school and about 95 percent of them are black or Latino.  

“Many of my students live in high-poverty neighborhoods, and a sign of weakness is, unfortunately, timid behavior,” said Davis.  “So they learn early growing up, in order to not be picked on, they have to meet like with like.”

That behavior then filters back into the school, said Musa Shama, the principal of Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, Queens.  

“Just because it happens out in the neighborhood doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make its way back into the school building,” Shama said.  

About 4,000 students attend Francis Lewis, many commuting from as far as the Bronx. Half of the students are Asian or South Asian, 25 percent are Hispanic and 8 percent are black.  

The issue for educators is, Shama said, how do you teach a student that what happens on the street at home isn’t appropriate on school grounds?

It’s an extremely tough question, he said, because problematic behavior still needs to be met with severe consequences, like suspension.  

“If they’re not severe, then what ends up happening is that those folks that are on the fringe think it’s okay to replicate,” he said.

Davis said more intervention programs are needed to counsel students to make better choices about how they interact with other students – courses on conflict resolution, peer mediation and school bullying.  

He said many of these programs have been provided free of charge to his school by the city.  

But the head of the principals’ union, Ernest Logan, said slashed school budgets make it difficult to offer other important resources to students with behavioral issues.  Logan said without certain sufficient support services, kids can bring anger into interactions on school grounds and educators who are ill-equipped to relate to these kids often feel their hands are tied.

“We don’t have as many guidance counselors, as many psychologists that we need to have,” he said.  “We have large class sizes, and we don’t have a lot of the after-school extracurricular things that students need to do.”

Logan said there is a disturbing overlap between the students who wind up getting suspended more often and those who end up in the criminal justice system.  

Data released by the NYPD shows more than 94 percent of students arrested in schools were either black or Latino during summer school from July through September last year.

The DOE did not return request from comment.


More in:

Comments [12]

Kena from Brooklyn

I am the mother of three of "these" children. All from public high schools in the city - Black and Latino. My oldest, who is now about to enter medical school, was suspended in middle school, for throwing a snow ball. Zero tolerance? The kid who started the snow ball "fight" was white. He did not get suspended, nor reprimanded. It took us a week and a lot of phone calls and meetings, to get the suspension lifted. What we saw in the process was some administrators expecting a Black kid to get in trouble - refusing to see the behavior as normal kids, playing with snow. Seeing a parent act in harsh ways toward in child does in no way excuse harsh behavior in schools. It just provides excuses. Non-judgment is the first rule I was taught as an educator. My other son, who is a junior at Harvard now, was stopped at a park because he and another Black friend were accused of stealing from a truck. I was there nearby so I know they didn't steal anything. Their "crime" as 11 year olds, they made fun of a the truck owner who was obese. Granted, they should not have made fun of any one - that's not how I've raised my children - but accused of stealing as revenge? Part of the problem is that some people expect our kids to be criminals, so they judge normal adolescent behavior as criminal, and as normal human beings, kids will act accordingly. The real criminal behavior here is schools not having enough teachers, paraprofessionals and resources to provide for our kids. How is it that we can bail out banks but not schools? I ask, what would our city be like if every single child in it felt safe enough to be a regular kid instead of feeling like he or she had to defend him or herself every waking moment?

Mar. 12 2012 11:30 PM
Wayne Johnson Ph.D. from Bk

The suspension rate is based on the deep institutional racism of the DOE which also arrests black boys in and out of school at a horribly disproportionate rate.

Mar. 12 2012 05:06 PM
jihobbyist from NYC

Jesus Hussein Christ. Race baiting much!!! If your school system is made up of more blacks and hispanics than any other group, just who do you expect to be discipline more? Japanese students? Nice try AILSA. Now can I get my membership due back please.

Mar. 12 2012 02:30 PM
Political Pop from america

crap i need to stop reading peoples comments the title basically says the same thing before u even read it

Mar. 12 2012 12:21 PM
Political Pop from america

Ok this whole article is busted now... everyone knows there are more blacks and hispanics in almost any public school which means overall ... KIDS NEED MORE DISCIPLINE RIGHT ? VERDE?

Mar. 12 2012 12:16 PM
Xtina from E. Village

Latino students aren't over-disciplined according to your stats. They're underdisciplined. They make up 40% of the population but are suspended 37% of the time. 37 is LESS than 40.

Mar. 12 2012 11:28 AM

I would like to point out that if Hispanic students represent 37% of suspensions and 40% of the student population in the city, they're actually slightly underrepresented in suspensions in New York. It's also interesting that while suspensions for black students show significant and concerning over-representation,the figures are more closely aligned than in the national statistics (14-46 nationally versus 33-53 in NYC). I would be curious to see how the stats hold up if you focus on income and also look at the relationships between students' home neighborhoods and crime rates in those neighborhoods. You would also want to know how repeat offenses are accounted for in this data. Do black students represent 53% of all students who are suspended or do 53% of all incidents leading to suspension involve black students? Those are very different statistics.

Also, for the person who asked what benefit a suspension provides: Suspended students still attend school but generally in suspension centers. There is MUCH room to improve academics in those centers, but they generally include fairly robust counseling and social services for students which could conceivably make a difference for a troubled student (probably not so much for a shorter-term suspension, but maybe for a longer-term one). Meanwhile, if a student is persistently disruptive and/or violent, removing them from the school -- even temporarily -- benefits the other students. Responsible leaders will of course work with their youth development team and their teachers to develop an action plan to avert future problems when the student returns to school. Ideally, you can identify problems before they arise, but that is not always possible (and intervention plans are also not perfect -- you still will have some kids who act in ways that merit a suspension even if you do everything you can to reduce or prevent those incidents).

Mar. 12 2012 11:07 AM
carolina from Brooklyn

The following will sound like an over-generalized, unscientific, racist conclusion to many who read it, but it happened frequently enough to provide me with some insight.

When I first began teaching in the 1960s, in a 50%-50% black and white jhs, I noticed that compared to the white students the black students needed much more heavy-handed pressure and discipline to get them to do the ordinary school activities. A kid would appear "weak" if he gave in to a teacher. Then I noticed out-of-school behavior--on the subway for example--when a black mother wanted her child to stop doing something annoying, the slap was the first step of discipline, and things got worse from there. After frequently seeing this form of child-rearing, even if the child was doing nothing "bad" (as seen from my point of view), I came to realize that anything less than strong physical reprimand was meaningless to these children, that a teacher's polite request to stop talking or do your homework, unaccompanied by a physical threat, had no force because force was the only meaningful, successful thing in their lives. Evidentally these children grew into "young adults" where fists are replaced by guns.

I must add that I taught in an area that also included upper middle-class professional African-American families who were not at all like this. The problem would seem to be a class thing that perpetuates itself along racial lines. Much has changed in the past fifty years, but not everything.

Mar. 12 2012 10:38 AM
Political POp from america

what exactly does suspending a child do? besides give a day off from the student to the class///

Mar. 12 2012 10:32 AM
Ed in the Apple from NYC

Experience as a highly successful teacher and assistant principal before you become a principal teaches you the skills to see trouble before it happens and intervene ... I would proffer that suspensions are greater in schools w/ inexperienced principals.

Mar. 12 2012 09:43 AM
john from office

The problem is at home for these black and hispanic students. How can you expect them to behave when there is no guidance at home. To say that school administrations do not understand these "cultures" is an insult to those cultures. Inner city "culture" is not culture it is bad behavior and habits. For example, wearing your pants so low you show your underwear is not cultural, it is a sign of a lack of adult guidance at home. Stop making excuses for bad behavior.

Mar. 12 2012 07:37 AM

So inner city African American students are disciplined more severely "because they’re often misunderstood by teachers and administrators who did not grow up in the same urban neighborhoods as the students did." according to high school principals who presumably did " grow up in the same urban neighborhoods". Seems a bit self-serving to me. And it is suggested that the "disturbing overlap between the students who wind up getting suspended more often and those who end up in the criminal justice system" is curable if only a larger staff of guidance counselors and psychologists were available. In other words, grow the failing enterprise.

Mar. 12 2012 05:08 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by