With much ballyhoo, the Obama administration announced this week that it will keep a close eye on school districts that discipline minority students at higher rates than whites. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan held a joint press conference to release a "Dear Colleague" letter to school districts issuing guidance on school discipline that will likely encourage districts to make race a significant factor in deciding how to administer punishment. Of course, Holder and Duncan claim their intention is to ensure nondiscrimination in school disciplinary procedures — but the guidelines they've offered will result in exactly the opposite.
Black and Hispanic students, on average, experience higher rates of school suspensions and other serious disciplinary actions — there is little doubt or debate on that score. A Washington Post study last year found that in the D.C. region, black students were far more likely to be suspended from school than whites or Asians. In Montgomery County, a suburban Maryland district just outside of Washington, 6 percent of black students were either suspended or expelled from school the previous year, while only 1.2 percent of white students suffered the same punishment. The most recent national school suspension statistics available show that some 15 percent of blacks, 7 percent of Hispanics, 5 percent of whites and 3 percent of Asians are suspended at some point in their school life.
But the real question is: Why? If black and Hispanic students engage in behavior that is punishable by suspension at higher rates than whites or Asians, then we shouldn't be surprised that their punishment rates are higher, as well. On the other hand, if behaviors don't differ or if black students who commit the same infractions as whites receive harsher treatment, discrimination is likely the cause.
Unfortunately, the DOJ and DOE guidelines go far beyond discouraging actual racial discrimination. In essence, what the Obama administration wants school districts to do is guarantee that minority students don't experience higher rates of suspension or other serious punishments for disciplinary infractions. It is certainly laudable to try to bring down suspension rates for black and Hispanic students — but there are right and wrong ways to go about it, and the Obama administration has chosen the worst way.
The guidelines tell school districts that any discipline policy that results in an "adverse impact on students of a particular race as compared with students of other races" is problematic. The school district must prove that the policy is "necessary to meet an important educational goal" and that there are not "comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school's stated educational goals."
In the D.C. area study, for example, minority students were far more likely to be suspended for "insubordination" than whites. The easiest way to fix the statistical disparity would be for school districts to eliminate insubordination as an infraction punishable by suspension. But whom would such a change benefit?
Students who refuse to follow the rules and behave disrespectfully to teachers and administrators would learn they could get away with it with no consequences, setting them up for future failure in the work world. Students who behaved would find themselves in unruly classrooms, and teachers would find their authority and ability to teach undermined.
Meanwhile, the real culprit for racial differences in disciplinary problems among students would go unexamined. More than 70 percent of black babies are born to single moms, as are about 60 percent of Native Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics, but less than 30 percent of whites and 20 percent of Asians. Children who grow up in fatherless homes are exponentially more likely to face school suspension or engage in early criminal behavior.
According to the Fatherhood Coalition, fatherless teens are three times more likely to be suspended from school and fatherless teen boys are 10 times more likely to become chronic juvenile offenders than those raised in homes with two parents. Forcing school districts to weaken disciplinary policies or set racial quotas in implementing them serves no one. And those who would suffer the most would likely be underachieving minority students stuck in undisciplined classrooms.
LINDA CHAVEZ, a Washington Examiner columnist, is nationally syndicated by Creators Syndicate.