Students in class at Roosevelt High School. /Photo by Andrew Roman
In national figures, African Americans were 18 percent of the sample, but accounted for 35 percent of the students suspended, and 39 percent of those expelled. More than 70 percent of school arrests were Latino or African American. In the Los Angeles Unified School District the suspension rate is six times higher for African Americans than whites– 17.3 percent, compared to 2.9 percent.
There seems to be a pattern in our schools where more students of color are getting suspended, ticketed, and being pushed out of education. Some of these problems stem from zero-tolerance policies which became popular after the Columbine High School shooting. While meant to deal primarily with weapons, zero tolerance policies have become more popular, and the number of suspensions nationwide have increased.
What I see happening at my own school is that these types of policies are being used to punish students for minor infractions like misbehaving in class or bringing cellphones to school. What’s troubling to me is that we, the students, are the future. The California Teacher’s Association says that harsh school discipline is a threat to academic achievement. What happens when most of black and Latino students are not in school? What does this mean for the future of our country?
Suspension is not the only area where black and Latino students have faced criminalization at school. Last month, the Los Angeles City Council voted to limit the issuance of “truancy tickets” which fined students for being late to school. Again students of color were disproportionately targeted. Data from the Community Rights Campaign showed that between 2004 and 2009, black and Latino students received the most tickets. Of the 47,000 tickets issued, 88 percent were given to Latino and black students. White students received about 7 percent of the tickets.
I don’t believe students need zero tolerance policies and strict discipline measures. Instead of keeping kids in school, these measures teach them to fear school. Students don’t need tickets for being late or to be suspended for minor offenses. What we need to look at, as a society, are the many circumstances surrounding why students of color are not succeeding in school. Instead of focusing on punishment, we all need to work together– parents, students, schools, community, politicians– to promote the success of children, of all colors. Or, who will become the leaders of tomorrow?
Cinthia González, a staff writer at Boyle Heights Beat, also is a member of the Labor/Community Strategy Center’s Community Rights Campaign to reform the city’s daytime curfew law.