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The Becoming Radical: Criminalizing Black Children Begins in Our Schools

Following the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2015 Kids Count report showing South Carolina children are facing even greater challenges, research from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (University of Pennsylvania) reveals that in SC and Greenville County black children are being disproportionately disciplined in our schools.

Just as the Kids Count data show racial inequity at the root of childhood challenges in our state, suspension and expulsion rates fall along racial lines between white and black students.

Across SC, “Blacks were 36% of students in school districts across the state, but comprised 60% of suspensions and 62% of expulsions,” including the SC Public Charter School having one of the highest ratios, 2.7 times disproportional. And in Greenville County, composed of 23.4% black students, the suspension rate for black students was double that enrollment at 47.4%.

However, the statistics themselves are not the whole story since research also shows that black children are targeted more often and treated differently than white children for the same behaviors. Reporting on the study in ColorLines, Kenrya Rankin Naasel explains:

When black students exhibit behavioral problems at school, administrators are more likely to call the police than to secure medical interventions. In fact, the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor.

David Ramey, assistant professor of sociology and criminology (Penn State), in a press release notes that these finding match a larger body of research:

The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors—for example, classroom disruptions, talking back—white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.

Further, beyond school, black children are viewed by police and others as being much older than their biological ages, and thus, Stacey Patton, a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues, “Black America has again been reminded that its children are not seen as worthy of being alive—in part because they are not seen as children at all, but as menacing threats to white lives.”

From Emmett Till to Tamir Rice, Patton notes, the criminalization of black children in schools is amplified in the loss of young black life in streets.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has exposed that the U.S. judicial system, in fact, targets and punishes blacks differently for the same behaviors as whites. For example, Alexander notes that police units sweep high-poverty black neighborhoods for illegal recreation drugs but do not sweep college campuses, where drugs are just as likely but the population tends to be white and affluent.

In SC and Greenville County, then, we must begin to examine in our schools how our policies are criminalizing black students at a great cost to their lives as well as to the welfare of the state and area.

A first step is to acknowledge racial bias in perceptions about black children and then to examine not only the data on racial disparities in discipline outcomes but also the actual policies and practices in our schools.

Particularly in schools and when dealing with children of any race, punishments such as suspension and expulsion are likely harmful options that should not occur until interventions are implemented that address the needs of all children living in challenging environments.

Child behaviors identified as “bad” are often the consequences of life experiences not of any child’s making. In other words, school discipline policies may too often be punishing children for conditions not in their or even their parents’ control.

Disproportionate school discipline along racial lines reflects and perpetuates racial inequity in society and in our criminal justice system. Increasingly, research suggests that schools are creating a criminal class of black children instead of providing those children the support and guidance every child deserves to have a full and rich life.

SC and Greenville County schools face tremendous challenges because of pockets of poverty, but to neglect the lingering racism that compounds the weight of poverty guarantees failure for our schools and some children we are choosing to condemn instead of cherish.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...