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Who Speaks for the Victims of the 'Victims'?

Cosmological theorists posit the existence of an infinitude of alternate universes. In one of those universes, perhaps there is one with a Henrico County School System that collects data showing that African-American students are more likely to suffer from violence and disrupted classes in school rather than data showing that African-American students are more likely to be suspended from school.

Unfortunately, in our universe, an array of political forces focuses public sympathy upon the kids who disrupt the learning environment rather than those whose learning is disrupted. The trouble makers are classified as victims. The victims of the victims are ignored.

As a result, readers of the Times-Dispatch are treated to yet another front-page hand-wringer about the disproportionate suspension of African-American students in Henrico schools. Over five years, it appears, Henrico has succeeded in reducing the number of suspensions from almost 10,200 in the school year ending in 2010 to 6,500 in the school year ending in 2014. Alas, in so doing, the percentage of African-Americans among all suspended students has increased from 74.6% to 77.7% over the same period. Reporter Ted Strong quotes the usual suspects on how the disparate results might reflect discrimination against African-Americans and gives a megaphone to School Board member Lamont Bagby, who wants more resources for more intensive therapeutic services for the kids creating the trouble.

This entire controversy is built upon the statistical disparity in suspensions between African-Americans and students of other racial/ethnic classifications. African-Americans account for 36.8% of the students in the school system but 77.7% of the suspensions. That disparity by itself is deemed evidence of discrimination as opposed to, say, evidence of lower incomes, rate of single-mother households or other sociological features of the African-American population. The Times-Dispatch has systematically mined the “discrimination” angle but given virtually no attention whatsoever to the socio-economic characteristics of the students being disciplined.

The Times-Dispatch skips over the fact that most suspensions take place in overwhelmingly black-majority schools where teachers and administrators are themselves disproportionately black. It apparently has never occurred to the Times-Dispatch to ask if African-American teachers and administrators are prone to discriminating against students of their own race or if they are simply responding to incidents on a case-by-case basis, in which a disproportionate number of troubled, disruptive kids are black.

Perhaps worse, the Times-Dispatch has shown no concern whatsoever for the victims of the so-called victims. What are the standards and procedures for suspending a student? How much disruptive behavior are students permitted before they are suspended? The T-D does not tell us. Has the T-D interviewed teachers and principals to ask if they are frustrated by the limited means at their disposal to discipline misbehaving students? Are teachers frustrated by the disruption to their classes? Do teachers feel that the learning experience of other students is diminished by the disruption? No, of course not. Those questions never occur to the T-D.

How many hours of classroom time — in effect, stolen from students who want to learn — does a student have to disrupt before getting suspended? How many hours of classroom time in total have been lost due to misbehaving students? No one measures those numbers and the T-D does not think to ask.

What has been the impact of the Henrico public school policy aimed at reducing the number of suspensions? Has the number of disruptive incidents declined as well, or are school administrators simply tolerating more ill-discipline in order to reduce the number of suspensions? What has been the impact on academic achievement of Henrico school kids — in particular, what has been the impact on schools where the most incidents and suspensions occur? Is it possible that the crackdown on suspensions has led to an increase in the level of disruptive behavior that has had a deleterious impact on learning? And, if such a perverse consequence has arisen from the policy, to what extent have African-American students been the victims of it?

Henrico public schools do not measure the data needed to answer such questions, or, if they do, the T-D does not think to ask for it. Therefore, readers are left with the impression that the Henrico County Public Schools are likely discriminating against African-American students. Perhaps they are. But the case is far from proven. For all we know, the failure to discipline disruptive kids is discriminating against African-American students. Maybe in an alternate universe, an alternate Times-Dispatch is telling that story.

(The article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on November 28, 2014)

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