Last year, in September, California became the first state to prohibit by law the suspension of students for “willful defiance” unless the activities involved were certified by the school superintendent as meeting the specific standards enumerated in the law, all of them very serious, most of them already crimes. What was the rationale behind Assembly Bill 420? Well, it seems African American kids were being disproportionately suspended. They made up about 6 percent of total enrollment, but 19 percent of suspensions for defiance.
According to the Justice Department’s politically motivated embrace of the “disparate impact” approach, any policy that disproportionately affects a minority group adversely is presumptively racist. It couldn’t possibly be true that black students are, as a group, more likely to defy authority, especially the authority of white teachers, right? The fact that pundits, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, MSNBC, Al Sharpton and the President keep hammering on the idea that America is run by a racist cabal, and that the only reason we aren’t getting ready to replace Teddy Roosevelt with Barack Obama on Mount Rushmore is that his wonderful accomplishments have been denied and distorted by white racists, and that our police departments are hunting down and murdering unarmed young black men as the justice system looks the other way—none of this could possibly be feeding anger, frustration, and hate among among young black students that is translated into willful defiance in class—why would anyone think that?
The law is lunacy. The California state government is endorsing the idea that the schools, especially white teachers, are bigots, and thus the government is reinforcing exactly the emotions and beliefs that feed African American classroom defiance in the first place. Now uncooperative minority students will be able to have their disruptive conduct validated (with disruptive conduct by non-minority students similarly encouraged), treated gently and with understanding, inevitably reducing the educational value of class by allowing more chaos and less discipline, undermining the education of well-behaved students black or white. Meanwhile, toxic behaviors, attitudes and conduct by students that will hamper their prospects of success after school will not attract trigger negative reinforcement.
And when the out-of-school defiant conduct occurs later in response to a lawful command by a police officer?
You might get Michael Brown.
This is such a good plan.
Naturally, it arises from ethically muddled thinking of a sort that is becoming increasingly popular. California Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, (D-Sacramento), who wrote the legislation, justifies it this way:
“We see disproportionate levels of discipline for LGBT-identifying kids, disabled kids, as well as African American kids and Latino kids. I think it has to do with expectations that teachers and administrators have about behavioral norms. In many instances, students may have different expectations of behavioral norms.”
Prof. Steve Mintz, the Ethics Sage, responds to that:
“This is ethical relativism at its worst. We should have a set of values based on what is right and what is wrong behavior. If we can’t even agree on those values, then we’ve already lost the battle and we wind up with a society where anyone can do whatever they want as long as it conforms to one’s personal expectations.”
Let’s call that Reason 1. why the law is bad policy.
Reason 2: Now students know that the consequences of insubordination, impudence and obstinancy are severely limited, in essence giving them approved license to misbehave.
Reason 3: It is now more difficult to discourage such conduct, increasing the likelihood of it becoming an established aspect of a student’s interaction with all authority.
Reason 4: This endorses bias as the accepted and default explanation for minority failure in any setting, discouraging personal accountability.
Reason 5: It makes a conscious choice that it is better to tolerate poor behavior and allow it to become more common and entrenched than to accept the consequences of discouraging it, such as accusations of racial bias.
The California schools had a 15% decline in suspensions last year, which is being applauded as a sign that the law is a “success.” This is exactly the kind of bootstrap reasoning that leads to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act is a success because more Americans are insured. Tautology does not a success make: yes indeed, making conduct illegal, whether it is not getting health insurance or punishing students who deserve to be punished, does tend to reduce it. Imagine that! Success, honestly measured, is determined by whether the desired results of a policy justify and outweigh its short and long-term costs, including the undesirable results.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, in praising the drop in suspensions, said,
“These numbers show that the work of the department, districts, teachers, parents and students around the state is paying off by keeping more students in school and learning. You can have the best facilities, the best teachers, and the best curriculum in the world, but none of that matters if students are not in school. That’s why we have put so much effort into increasing school attendance and reducing expulsions and suspensions and will continue to do so.”
And what if the opportunities for all the students to learn is decisively reduced by a classroom atmosphere in which disrespect and disruptions are commonplace? What if the students who defy teachers’ authority learn the false lesson that such conduct is acceptable, or that teachers, and, in the future, employers, police and other authority figures will be tarred as racists and bigots if they react negatively to such behavior? I pulled my son out of pubic high school after he informed me that a third to a half of every class period was devoted to getting disruptive and disrespectful students, most of the African Americans, to settle down, stop talking, and sit down.
Using the presumption of bigotry to explain unwelcome statistics helps neither minorities not whites. It just generates deceptively comforting statistics at an unacceptable cost.