School Board Member, Jeff Bergosh’s, proposed “discipline” initiative clearly is rhetoric that includes the “coded-language” of racial discrimination and can best be characterized as ignorance about how to best effectively educate African American students with “challenged” socioeconomic conditions or different cultural backgrounds.
Mr. Bergosh your initiative clearly is aimed at African-American students and our previous “debates” about this issue shows that this proposal is your latest attempt to control black students more tightly than whites, believing that they are not sufficiently disciplined at home. Your well documented “public record” on this subject matter clearly demonstrates your initiatives, perspectives, practices and policies fail to find ways to develop the knowledge, cognitive abilities, cultural differences, and values of African American students.
Mr. Bergosh have you considered ECSD educators may project negative attitudes about African American students and avoid, rather than mentor, them and discipline “problems” may be a result of the children rebelling against a “system that clearly shows them they don’t care about them?”
The reasons for the differential treatment of students of color and white students are many and complex, but the result is often the same: African American students may feel encouraged to act out. Moreover, the bad conduct of a white male student is likely to be excused as a one-time slip while an African American youth who similarly misbehaves is labeled a perpetual troublemaker and severely punished, thought by the school that he has nothing to lose by being so classified.
Sadly in the ECSD, many African American youth believe that should they manage to excel in school, despite the obstacles, racism will limit their ability to reap the advantages available to white achievers. So, the students, males in particular, often manage their anxiety by being resistant to cultural norms or even dropping out, thereby confirming for schools the legitimacy of their low expectations for the students.
The development of “Cross-Cultural Competence” with innovative programs, like the Magic Johnson Bridescape Academy, in the Escambia County School District can transform its programs and culture to create a hospitable environment for African Americans by communicating the expectation that all students can succeed; providing them with the opportunity to do so; fostering their development of social skills and self-control strategies; setting criterion-based achievement objectives; and evaluating students for their strengths, not their weaknesses.
ECSD can also try to increase the number of African Americans on their teaching staffs, and train existing staff, regardless of race, to master cross-cultural communication skills and teaching strategies and change entrenched ways of dealing with students of color.
Obviously, school disruptions cannot be tolerated. But racial and cultural differences in the definition of good behavior, along with miscommunications, frequently lead to the inequitable punishment of students of color by school personnel who do not respect their style of classroom participation. Further, arbitrary and excessive consequences for minor offenses can develop in all students a sense of powerlessness, dependence on authority, and anger that leads to further misbehavior.
More progressive school districts across the country are beginning to use a number of strategies to prevent many discipline problems and to deal with those that arise while still respecting students’ rights and individual differences. In fact, some districts and schools have successfully adopted one of the several research-based comprehensive programs for maintaining a safe and effective school.
Before disciplining students, educators should elicit and consider the reasons for their perceived misbehavior, particularly as they relate to racial differences between teachers and students. Doing so demonstrates a teacher’s respect for student concerns. It can even uncover information about a problem that the school might help solve, such as the need for educational supports; assistance in securing food and shelter; relief from victimization through bullying; and counseling for trauma, depression, and family difficulties.
For example, in class, many African American students speak out loudly and interrupt as a way of showing their interest, or even argue as they press their point; their intention is to participate, not misbehave, although some teachers may consider them disrespectful. Students may engage in certain challenging behaviors common to the African American male adolescent community, not because they want to disrupt the classroom but because they want to demonstrate their rebellion against what they consider a teacher’s “power tripping”; lessons they consider irrelevant, racist, or too simplistic; their perception that teachers believe them incapable of achievement; or their inability to keep up with white classmates because of learning or developmental differences.
George Hawthorne is CEO of Diversity Program Advisors.