Trust the NY Times to put its finger on the schism in political thought that divides the country today, especially when it does it by accident. In the 7/19/11 issue, there was a 2-column story on a recent study of discipline in Texas schools. It followed nearly one million students entering the seventh grade through high school, and sometimes beyond.
The tone of the article was the usual NYT product, emphasizing the disparity in disciplinary action between minority students and the general student body. Specifically, minorities were more likely to get the harsher out-of-school suspensions, rather than the in-school suspensions that white students received. It also noted that minorities were more often clustered in “alternative” classrooms, which “some have complained” have less qualified teachers.
Familiar as all this is, something else about it rankled. It was the phrase, in parenthesis, “(The nature of the offenses was not noted.)” It just stopped me cold. Why, I thought, did that seem peculiar? Reflecting on it, I realized that there was much significance in that choice of words. And of making it parenthetical as well, as if it could be flicked off, a meaningless afterthought.
But this was not “after” but “forethought”, and it explained the motive behind the study in the first place. The clear intent was to throw the disparity of treatment in stark relief, to have it framed in isolation as “pure” injustice and discrimination. This would not be possible if the reader was reminded of the function of the discipline; namely to safeguard against harm to the student body and the staff, and to preserve an atmosphere that promotes learning.
I am convinced that these well-meaning attempts to highlight the disparity in negative results for “victim” groups is harmful to all concerned. The article notes the growing concern with balancing “classroom order with individual student need”. Is that what it’s about? Classroom order ? I think not. And I don’t think that studies of student discipline that conveniently fail to note “the nature of the offenses” will persuade anyone to “balance” the safety of our children with useless gestures of tolerance for dangerous behavior.