Racial stereotypes dictate discipline

Thursday, May 13, 2004

After a cursory examina tion of data showing that black students in the Twinsburg schools are suspended nearly three times as often as white students, Superintendent James Jones offered a sweeping and unconvincing observation.

Discipline problems in the district can be traced to single-parent families, Jones said, explaining figures showing that two-thirds of the 115 suspensions at R.B. Chamberlin Middle School have gone to black students, who account for less than a quarter of the school enrollment.

The problem children are mostly black because they come disproportionately from "split families and poor households," he told Plain Dealer reporter April McClellan-Copeland.

Jones didn't seem the least bit inhibited by facts in his zeal to scapegoat black students and their parents.

Asked to provide evidence to support his stereotype of disruptive black students - especially black boys, who are most often suspended in the district - Jones admitted that he didn't have statistics to correlate discipline with family structure.

In other words, he just made the facts fit his belief.

No wonder that black parents in Twinsburg are alarmed. Who wouldn't be?

Twinsburg has a problem. And it's not just a dissembling school superintendent, though Jones' attitude reflects a larger issue in this fast-growing suburban community.

Nestled between Cleveland and Akron, Twinsburg long had a small black population concentrated in public housing in Twinsburg Heights. But in recent years, the town has become a magnet for affluent nonwhite families seeking the good life in suburbia.

Black, Asian and Hispanic families are surging into the area.

To accommodate the tastes and pocketbooks of these affluent newcomers, parts of Twinsburg are awash in new construction with homes priced upwards of $300,000.

For some, the sudden appearance of darker faces in formerly white spaces brings to mind the image of broken homes. In Jones' mind, it seems, that's the reason for strong-armed discipline.

If Jones and other town officials, who have hired few blacks and other minorities for city jobs, had bothered to get to know their neighbors, they might have learned that most aren't any poorer - or more likely to be single parents - than they are themselves.

Indeed, the black families moving to Twinsburg tend to be better educated and wealthier than the existing white residents.

These families send their children to district schools, where they expect administrators to treat them as fairly as they treat white children.

But obviously that's not the case.

The racial gulf in suspension rates suggests that black students are being selectively targeted for misbehaving and are receiving harsher punishment than white students.

If this isn't the case, then at the very least it's a troubling perception that school and city officials ought to take seriously and do everything possible to eliminate.

But Jones didn't seem concerned. He threw back his head, laughed out loud and dismissed the black parents' concern as "ridiculous."

But they are right to be outraged.

Their dream community is in denial about how to embrace the diversity that makes Twinsburg prosper.

To reach this Plain Dealer columnist:

sfulwood@plaind.com, 216-999-5250


2004 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.