Not long ago, when a study from the left-leaning Applied Research Center charged a “deep pattern of institutional racism” in the disciplinary practices of public school districts around the country, it brought back some memories.
More than 25 years ago, when I was dean of boys at a high school in northern Queens, we received a letter from a federal agency pointing out that we had suspended black students far out of proportion to their numbers in our student population. Though it carried no explicit or even implicit threats, the letter was enough to set the alarm bells ringing in all the first-floor administrative offices.
When my supervisor, the assistant principal, showed me the letter, she merely shook her head and looked downcast. She said nothing, but her body language told me that it was probably time to mend our errant ways.
And when I passed the news on to our chief security guard that the feds were on our case, he merely chuckled and said, “They’re bad”—meaning our rowdy clientele, which I took as confirmation of what I still believe: that until then, I hadn’t recommended suspension for anyone who didn’t richly deserve it.
There never was a smoking-gun memo, or a special meeting where the word got out, and I never made a conscious decision to change my approach to punishment, but somehow we knew we had to get our numbers “right”—that is, we needed to suspend fewer minorities or haul more white folks into the dean’s office for our ultimate punishment.
What this meant in practice was an unarticulated modification of our disciplinary standards. For example, obscenities directed at a teacher would mean, in cases involving minority students, a rebuke from the dean and a notation on the record or a letter home rather than a suspension. For cases in which white students had committed infractions, it meant zero tolerance. Unofficially, we began to enforce dual systems of justice. Inevitably, where the numbers ruled, some kids would wind up punished more severely than others for the same offense.
I remember one case in particular. It was near the end of the day, and the early-session kids were heading toward the exits. I stood in front of my office looking deanlike, establishing the presence of authority to ensure orderly dismissal. It didn’t entirely work. The boy was a white kid, tall, with an unruly mop of blond hair. He was within 200 feet of the nearest exit and blessed freedom. But he couldn’t wait. The nicotine fit was on him, and he lit a cigarette barely two yards from me. I pounced, and within 20 minutes he was suspended—for endangering himself and others.
Surely we acted within the boundaries of our authority, and, as it emerged during the suspension hearing in the principal’s office, the boy was having academic problems that his father was only dimly aware of. So the whole incident might have accomplished something positive in the end.
But, of course, we might have achieved the same result and arranged a parent conference without resorting to suspension. The kid wasn’t a chronic troublemaker—indeed, until now he’d been a complete stranger to the dean’s office. It was a first offense. And keeping him out of school for a whole week, the maximum that state law allows, was obviously not going to help him with his grades.
During the principal’s hearing, as I sat across the table from the boy and his father, I recalled a classic essay that I had often taught my senior English classes. It was by George Orwell, and it recalled an unpleasant incident during his service as a policeman in Burma. Knowing that he was doing wrong, Orwell shot an elephant to save face before a mocking crowd of natives. No one suggested that we had acted incorrectly. Kids in our charge had to learn right from wrong, we told ourselves. But, more than two decades later, I still can’t escape the nagging thought that, though we had other choices, better suited for the boy’s welfare, at bottom all of us just wanted to get our numbers right.