MAXWELL: With no discipline, there’s no learning
1/14/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Part two of a series
Two weeks ago, Gibbs High School principal Antelia Campbell mailed letters that read the riot act to her students, to her staff and to parents with children attending the troubled St. Petersburg campus.
Here is one example of a directive to teachers: “All (teachers) will be required to be physically seen at their door during the change of every class period. For those teachers who float, you will need to stand at your door once you have arrived at your next class.”
Another: “A zero tolerance will be instituted for all gang paraphernalia such as, but not limited to, bandanas and showing of colors.”
A warning mailed to parents: “Students who continue to be disruptive on campus will be recommended for an alternative educational placement. While we want students to attend Gibbs and receive an education, we do not want these educational experiences to be hindered by a few disruptive students.”
Another: “Students who direct profanity towards adults on campus will receive an automatic suspension. Continuous offenses will be met with progressive discipline. Appropriate language is expected on campus at all times.”
No public school principal anywhere in the United States should have to waste time writing letters pleading for discipline.
The ugly reality, however, is that Campbell has been forced into trying to make Gibbs, Pinellas County’s fifth-largest and most expensive high school, an environment conducive to learning. After all, providing children with a safe environment to learn is the public school’s raison d’etre.
The other ugly reality is one that few people, black or white, discuss publicly: While blacks represent only 19 percent of the student population in Pinellas schools, they annually account for 35 to 40 percent of the disciplinary actions. In short, black students, mostly males, cause the highest number of disruptions and commit the highest number of behavioral infractions in Pinellas public schools. These problems include tardiness, unexcused absences, fighting with other students, vandalism and mouthing off to teachers.
As a result, black students, mostly males, receive a disproportionately higher number of disciplinary actions, including out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions, expulsions and trips to the principal’s office.
Although the statistics are grim for black children in our elementary and middle schools, let’s look at the high school statistics culled from the August 2006 official report titled “Black Student Achievement Superintendent’s Report 2005-2006 (School Year).”
Out-of-school suspensions: During the 2003-2004 school year, black students accounted for 34 percent of out-of-school suspensions, while their non-black peers were 13 percent. In 2004-2005, blacks were 31 percent; non-blacks, 11 percent. In 2005-2006, blacks were 25 percent; nonblacks, 11 percent.
Drastic disparities show up when black males are compared with other groups. During 2005-2006, black males represented 28 percent of out-of-school suspensions; black females, 19 percent; nonblack males, 14 percent; nonblack females, 7 percent.
In-school suspensions during 2005-2006: Blacks represented 41 percent, while nonblacks were 21 percent. When broken down by gender, black males were 48 percent, while black females were 37 percent. Nonblack males represented 26 percent, and nonblack females were 16 percent.
Because of the achievement gap and because of the increasing demand for technical skills and knowledge, these statistics should ring an alarm bell for black parents and black leaders. And this is not the time to play the self-defeating blame game. We need to earnestly seek ways to help the greatest number of black children, especially males, thrive and become a natural part of their schools.
Scholars have labored to understand why black children disproportionately receive exclusionary punishment in school. Studies show, for example, that many black children wind up being punished because they have a need for physical movement, while the typical classroom, with a teacher in control at the front of the room, is a structured setting.
“Classrooms that thwart physical movement may contribute to African-American students engaging in inappropriate behaviors,” writes University of South Florida special education professor Brenda A. Townsend, in a paper titled “The Disproportionate Discipline of African-American Learners: Reducing School Suspensions and Expulsions.”
Another problem, Townsend writes, is that black students tend to interact with speakers, thus creating discord and giving the appearance of disrespecting the speaker.
” ‘Call and response’ is an African American tradition that occurs when listeners actively and verbally respond to speakers. When classroom expectations stipulate that students engage in passive listening behaviors (i.e., looking at the speaker, nodding appropriately, etc.), African-American students may appear to purposely distract the speaker or even ‘talk back’ to the speaker. Students who engage the speaker in call and response routines may be perceived as behaving inappropriately, even though that style demonstrates that they are engaged and such engagement may facilitate their learning.”
Other studies suggest that black students, especially males, are disproportionately disciplined when they bring the profane bluster, the signature garb and the threatening behaviors of gangsta rappers to campus.
In many instances, teachers can be trained to recognize and accommodate their students’ unique cultural propensities, thus reducing the need for exclusionary punishment.
In cases where gangsta culture and other dangerous patterns are disruptive, as has been the case at Gibbs, zero tolerance is appropriate, and the students involved should be removed from campus because the school is being forced to squander precious resources and divert attention away from its real mission.
Gibbs principal Campbell should not have to waste her valuable time reading the riot act to disruptive students. She certainly should not have to remind parents to get directly involved in the academic lives of their children.