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Punishment For Taking Mom's Call From Iraq Shows Harsh Treatment of Black Students

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

50 Years After School Integration, A Major Step Backwards

(PNS) LOS ANGELES -- The 10-day suspension of Columbus, Georgia, high school student Kevin Francois for talking to his mother on a cell phone during school hours ignited a storm of protest. Francois' mom had called from Iraq, where she's doing a one-year tour of Army duty. The school board quickly backed down and modified the suspension to three days. But the board's harsh treatment of Francois spotlights allegations that school officials across the country routinely come down harder on black students than white ones.

In a report on school discipline, the U.S. Dept. of Education in 1999 found that although blacks made up less than 20 percent of the nation's public school students, they comprised nearly one out of three students kicked out of the schools.

Five years later, in a report last September on what it brands "Educational Apartheid in America's Public Schools," the Children's Defense Fund found that black students are still expelled and suspended in numbers disproportionate to whites.

Some educators chalk up the lopsided numbers of black student suspensions and expulsions to poverty, cultural differences and linguistic misunderstandings. Others claim that black students are more prone than whites to pick fights, deal drugs and pack guns and knives at schools.

Columbus school officials claimed that Francois was defiant and used profanity when asked to hang up. This dodges the issue of racial bias. At the score of high schools where white students have gone on murderous rampages, for example, teachers and school administrators ignored danger signs or merely imposed hand-slap punishments on the students.

Clearly, some whites' perceptions of young blacks is part of the problem. Urban riots and civil disturbances reinforced white fears that young black males are eternal menaces to society. When some young blacks turned to gangs, guns and drugs and terrorized their communities, much of the press titillated the public with endless features on the crack-plagued, blood-stained streets of the ghetto. TV action news crews turned into a major growth industry, and many stalked black neighborhoods and filmed drug busts. The explosion of "gangsta rap" and the spate of Hollywood ghetto films convinced many Americans that the thug lifestyle was the black lifestyle.

Yet the negative images and the bad behavior of some young blacks can't fully explain the outrageously high numbers of black students getting the boot from schools. Education officials concede another reason is that poor and minority parents are less likely than white, middle-class parents to challenge school officials' decisions to suspend or expel their children.

There are two other reasons that school officials often grossly overreact to the bad behavior of some black students. The federal Gun-Free Schools Act, passed in 1994, requires that states order their schools to boot students out for weapons possession in order to qualify for federal funds. School officials later expanded the list of violations for student expulsion to include fighting and other violent acts. California's zero-tolerance school laws, for example, mandate that a student be expelled for one year for infractions that include drug sales, robbery, assault, weapons possession and fights that cause serious physical injury. The only exception is if the student that caused the injury acted in self-defense.

School officials zealously enforce get-tough policies to prove that they will do whatever it takes to get rid of disruptive students. What rankles civil right groups is that these policies may be badly tainted with racial stereotypes. The danger is that many school officials reflexively view young blacks as violence-prone, menace-to-society thugs. In such instances, zero-tolerance is a repressive tool that victimizes black students.

Furthermore, zero-tolerance policies that merely dump students into makeshift alternative schools or out onto the streets demoralize students and parents, reinforce the notion among blacks that school officials impose a racial double-standard and increase disdain among minorities for public education. The Children's Defense Fund report noted that the heavy-handed ouster of black students from schools is a major factor in the grossly high drop-out rate of black students from many inner city schools.

Francois' phone call from his mom hardly fit the category of a violent or disruptive act. Even if he reacted defiantly, as school officials claimed, their draconian suspension was a far greater overreaction. Protests over his suspension forced school officials to modify the suspension. Many more protests are needed to stop the racial profiling of black students.

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Albion Monitor May 18, 2005 (

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