Black high school students in Chicago are more likely to be suspended than whites or Latinos are, according to a student survey conducted last year by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.
In a survey of 10th-graders, 82 percent of both whites and Latinos reported that they had never been suspended, compared to only 73 percent of African-American students. And 83 percent of whites said they had never been placed on in-school suspension, compared to only 72 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latinos. About 6,000 students responded to the survey.
Data submitted by Chicago to the Illinois State Board of Education last year showed less of a difference in suspension rates; however, the board’s data is incomplete. (See story on page 11.) Black students make up 54 percent of Chicago’s school population, but were 59 percent of all suspended students and 62 percent of those suspended twice or more, according to the state’s tallies. White students, who make up 11 percent of the high school population, were 10 percent of those suspended; Latinos, who make up 31 percent of the population, were 28 percent of suspended students.
Under its desegregation plan, Chicago is required to collect and report suspension data by race, ethnicity and sex to help ensure that discipline is applied fairly across racial lines. Unfair discipline helps create inferior education, explains Robert Howard, former desegregation attorney for the School Board. Black students, for instance, will get less instruction time than whites if they are removed from class more often for disciplinary reasons.
But with underreporting of suspensions a problem at nearly a third of high schools, it’s difficult to say how well Chicago is meeting the desegregation plan’s goal of fairness. A school-by-school analysis, too, is needed to determine whether black students are being treated more harshly, maintains Powhatan Collins, the board’s director of high school services.
Still, educators familiar with Chicago schools say they aren’t surprised by the imbalance.
Barbara Sizemore, dean of DePaul University’s School of Education, says that black students’ behavior, particularly that of young black men, is often misinterpreted as confrontational or disrespectful. “Their [behavioral] style is quite different than the style required by school,” she says. “And if your only consequence is suspension, even for minor things, that drives it [the suspension rate] up.”
Too, teachers might overreact to black students’ misbehavior because they harbor negative perceptions of black youth. “They’re watching too much TV,” says Michelle Smith, a math teacher at COMETS, Harper High’s communications-oriented small school. “The media has made us believe that black kids are violent and, because of that, they [teachers] want to get them out of the classroom.” Black teachers, she adds, can be just as guilty as whites of harboring misperceptions.
Sara Howard, a social studies teacher at COMETS (who is white), agrees that white teachers sometimes have a more difficult time with black students. She recalls an example involving “my most hyper, and, paradoxically, my smartest, student,” a young black male. Howard’s class was reading an excerpt from the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, when Howard noticed that the young man wasn’t reading. Asked why, he complained that she hadn’t given him a copy; in the ensuing discussion, the young man told her angrily, “No white teacher’s gonna teach me about my heritage.”
Howard discussed the outburst with him privately and discovered that the young man didn’t really resent a white teacher teaching African-American history. Instead, he was simply upset because “I had singled him out as the one person who wasn’t reading, when there were three kids who weren’t.”
Rather than talking out the incident, Howard says, many white teachers “would have gotten totally offended by it, and it would turn into a whole big issue of sending the kid to the discipline room, calling his parents or whatever, [or] suspending him.”
Still, Howard points out, teacher-student difficulties are increasingly based on class differences, not race. “Even [middle-class] black teachers are walking in here [at Harper} and saying, ‘This is not what it was like when I was in high school.’ ”
In some cases, predominantly black schools might be more authoritarian; if they suspend students more frequently, then the overall suspension rate for black students rises more steeply.
Black schools often focus on teaching and enforcing discipline because “they think kids come [to school] without it,” says Smith, who has also taught at Fenger and Phillips. “But they don’t realize, kids are going to do mischievous things anyway.”
“Wherever there’s black kids, schools tend to be more authoritarian,” observes Michael Klonsky, co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “You go to white suburban schools—you’ll find that behavior problems aren’t dealt with the same [authoritarian] way.”
Black schools paternalistic?
Sizemore disagrees; she believes black schools are often “too paternalistic” and apt to excuse students’ misbehavior out of sympathy over the tough home lives students have. The real problem, she notes, is that in dealing with misbehavior schools as a whole haven’t developed methods other than suspension.
Overall, Klonsky points out, most high schools simply aren’t geared to deal with today’s young people, especially students of color. “We’ve got all these schools populated [mostly] by black kids, and the leadership of schools are not oriented toward the needs of black youth,” he says. “The culture and environment of schools hasn’t changed in 50 years. Kids feel bored, invisible, restless, labeled [as problems], and they act out a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
One teacher, however, sums up the crux of racial concerns in the classroom. “You can approach this two ways,” says Steve Strull, a social studies teacher at DuSable High, gesturing toward his class. “You can look at this class and see 20 poor black kids. Or you can look and see Jeanine, James, Arnetta—all these beautiful young people. If you put the people before the label, then there’s no [racial] issue any more.”