A school district in Arizona has come under fire after a newspaper columnist highlighted the district’s newly adopted racial policy and called it a “two-tiered form of student discipline: one for black and Hispanic students; one for everyone else.”
Arizona Republic columnist Doug MacEachern drew attention to a decision made by the Tucson Unified School District’s board over the summer to adopt a “Post-Unitary Status Plan,” which includes the goal of reducing suspensions and expulsions of minority students to reflect “no ethnic/racial disparities.”
“TUSD principals and disciplinarians (assuming such creatures still exist) are being asked to set two standards of behavior for their students,” MacEachern commented. “Some behavior will be met with strict penalties; some will not. It all depends on the color of the student’s skin.”
MacEachern’s column quoted a section of the board’s 52-page plan titled “Restorative School Culture and Climate,” subhead, “Discipline”:
“School data that show disparities in suspension/expulsion rates will be examined in detail for root causes,” the new policy states. “Special attention will be dedicated to data regarding African-American and Hispanic students.”
The board also created an “Equity Team” to ensure “a commitment to social justice for all students.”
“The happy-face edu-speak notwithstanding, what the Tucson Unified School District board of governors has approved this summer is a race-based system of discipline,” MacEachern concluded. “Offenses by students will be judged, and penalties meted out, depending on the student’s hue.”
School officials, however, have both refuted MacEachern’s description of the policy as “two-tiered” and argued that the new guidelines will only help correct racial inequalities that already exist in the system.
TUSD Governing Board member Adelita Grijalva told the Arizona Daily Star that MacEachern’s column was right in one aspect:
“Currently, we do have a two-tiered system,” she said. “If you look at children of color vs. Caucasian children, you will see that for the same kind of offenses, children of color are getting more severe consequences.”
The board’s report includes statistics that while American Indian students make up only 4 percent of the student body, they account for 20 percent of the suspensions across the district. And while black students only make up 7 percent of the student body, they account for 16.3 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
Grijalva also told the Star that administrators have had too much discretion over the years to give some kids a pass while throwing the book at others; and since the majority of teachers are white, they might not understand cultural differences.
“This will allow us to look at the situation with a bigger lens,” she said, “and I am 100 percent supportive of it.”
TUSD Assistant Superintendent Jim Fish told the Star that MacEachern had misunderstood what is meant by the board’s plan to adopt a more “restorative” culture and that seeing a two-tiered system of discipline in the policy is “far-fetched.”
“This would apply to all children,” Fish said. “There is no such thing as treating one class of students differently.”
Fish explained that suspensions and expulsions, which he sees as punitive and ultimately damaging to the students’ academic progress, will be reduced across the district, replaced instead with disciplinary measures that present “restorative” learning opportunities.
For example, Fish related to the Star, he dealt recently with a pair of students involved in a fight. Instead of an automatic suspension, he called the boys, their parents and a counselor into a meeting. The group discussed how the boys’ actions affected others and how disappointed the parents were. After the students expressed remorse and shook hands, they went back to class instead of being sent home.
“We’re teaching kids about the mistakes they’ve made,” Fish said. “People miss the point because they assume when they’re disciplining kids, they’re doing that. But they’re really punishing kids. If you’re out of school 10 days or 45 days and you’re not dealing with the infraction, you haven’t changed your thoughts or behaviors or actions.”
Fish explained that some behaviors, including having drugs or weapons at school, will still carry suspensions, but many other instances would be better handled as restorative learning opportunities.