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

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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.