Educators' racist bias turns zero-tolerance policy destructive for kids, researchers say

In Miami-Dade public schools, black girls got suspended more than boys

(GRAPHIC: Images courtesy of Library of Congress and African American Policy Forum)

When news that a police officer handcuffed a 6-year-old girl by her biceps, because her wrists were too small, the nation was outraged. A police officer escorted her to the police station in the back of a patrol car, the police report said.

Little Desre'e Watson's crime: A 20-minute tantrum at her school in central Florida. The kindergartener's charges: Battery on a school official, disruption of a school function and resisting a law enforcement officer.

When a New York Times columnist confronted the police chief about the "backward" move to arrest the black little girl, the law enforcer replied with a haunting question.

"Do you think this is the first 6-year-old we've arrested?"

FLORIDA 2011-2012 FACTS 

Florida secondary schools suspended 20 percent of students at least once.

Florida elementary schools suspended 5.1 percent of students at least once.

DADE 2011-2012 FACTS

Dade  secondary level schools suspended 16.5 percent of students at least once.

Dade elementary schools suspended 3.5 percent of students at least once.

QUESTIONS ANALYSIS POSES

Are teachers using the measure of giving up on students by removing them from the classroom as a last resort?

Are there deficiencies in policies or education resources that lead to more frequent suspensions?

SOME RECOMMENDATIONS

Support training for teachers

Make school climate an equal factor

Prohibit unjustifiable use of disciplinary exclusion

SOURCE: The Civil Rights Project

Civil rights advocates are convinced that over the years a trend in get-tough disciplinary policies has solidified the  school-to-prison pipeline  for vulnerable girls in Florida. And if a University of California's Center for Civil Rights study released Monday is right, some black girls in Miami-Dade County may be on a pathway to hopelessness.

The study looked at U.S. Department of Education reports on school suspensions nationwide during the 2011-12 school year, which is the latest data available. There were "deep disparities" along the lines of race and disabilities in the states that have the highest corrections populations in the country.

Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said that the fact that "21 percent of the districts suspended one of every four black secondary students is shocking."

The disparity, Losen said, inflicts upon millions of historically disadvantaged children "a legacy of despair rather than opportunity" and educators are "legally and morally obliged to take action."

Florida lead with the highest suspension rates in the country.  A comparative analysis showed that a Florida district also placed first nationwide on reporting the greatest disciplinary disparity between black and white girls.

In Miami-Dade -- where records show 23 percent of the students are black and 67.5 percent are Hispanic -- the suspension rate was "alarming" and "disturbing," researchers said. The analysis found that at 16.5 percent, the suspension rate was "extraordinarily high" compared to the rest of the districts in the country, researchers said.

The recent study also found black girls were suspended at higher rates than boys of all races in Miami-Dade -- the fourth largest school district in the country.

The data on black girls with disabilities in secondary school may likely paint even a more grim picture. In that year, 64 percent of black students with verified physical, medical or psychological disabilities in Miami-Dade were suspended at least once.

The Civil Rights Project study has some educators nationwide questioning whether or not the reports on disciplinary practices reflect a bias in their district. They face a difficult dilemma. While the practices maybe preventing insubordination, they could also be damaging students.

Previous research shows that there is a proven link between the use of punitive disciplinary measures and subsequent patterns of criminal supervision and incarceration.

Making changes to public school discipline codes also requires a budgetary shift. In New York City, public school officials said implementing discipline changes that will take effect in September will cost $5 million. The district plans to pay for conflict resolution training and will require school principals to get City Education Department approval for certain suspensions.

"No parent should have to choose between a school that is safe for their child and a school where every student is treated fairly," NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio recently told the Daily News, as he praised the changes. "All our schools can and must be both."

In the South Florida district, where school fights -- due to gang activity among predominantly African American students in poverty stricken neighborhoods -- have proven to be deadly, this balance is imperative.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the district is already using two programs linked to the code of student conduct that allow alternative punishments such as community service.

And because of these old programs, suspensions have "significantly" decreased, Gonzalez said. She also didn't disregard a change in the district's discipline code. She added that the educators are "seeking effective methods to continue reducing these suspension rates."

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