Research about victimization trends among racial or ethnic groups has often been hampered by use of different definitions, different measurements, and different samples. Native American and Asian students have rarely been included in such studies, even though the limited research on the subject suggests Native Americans are particularly vulnerable to such crime and violence. According to the U.S. Department of Education, white male high school seniors are twice as likely to bring a weapon to school as black male seniors. Among all major racial and ethnic groups, blacks are the least likely to bring weapons to school. In fact, all of the high-profile rampage school shooters in the 1990s were white males. Despite the fact that school violence had long been an issue of concern in urban districts with largely minority populations, it was not until the problem spread to suburban and rural areas that it was perceived as critical by the general public.
There is very little difference in the levels of victimization at urban, suburban, and rural schools. A recent study found that racial and ethnic groups were victimized at rates similar to their proportion in the population, but that Asian Americans and African Americans were most likely to report being bullied or harassed because of their race. Another exception was that white students were overrepre-sented as victims of sexual harassment.
Despite these data, the general public often believes that black, urban students are the most violent. One source of this misconception is the media. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that media sources disproportionately highlight cases in which blacks are offenders. When whites are offenders, more time is devoted to explaining why the incident may have occurred than when blacks offend. The implication is that black violence is to be expected, while white violence is unusual and must be explained. Media portrayals of violent minorities may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some evidence suggests that certain educators already assume African American students to be deviant. In May 2009, parents of nine African American students filed suit in Alabama, saying their children were harassed by teachers, who called them “niggers” and “filthy trash,” and were told they would not be allowed to run around the school “like a bunch of wild animals.” These students had been suspended for multiple days for offenses such as not having their shirts tucked in properly, not wearing a belt or wearing the wrong kind of belt, and wearing the wrong-color undershirt. The staff at the school used corporal punishment against the students when they ran in the halls or talked in class; when their parents complained, the students received even more punishment. The parents were also banned from school and threatened with arrest for complaining. Because the school board in that district prohibits public speaking related to racial discrimination at its meetings, the parents have had trouble bringing the issue to the public’s attention.
Research has shown that coverage of school violence differs tremendously when it is minority offenders who are involved. Whereas reports about the Columbine High School massacre, for instance, emphasized that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were from “good” families and thus their actions were difficult to explain, coverage of Jeff Weise’s shooting on the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota emphasized the overall violence and poverty of the Native American-dominated region.
Although data do not support the contention that black and Hispanic students are more violent than their white counterparts, these groups do face disproportionate rates of punishment. In a nationally representative study conducted by Education Insights at Public Agenda, 19% of white students, 26% of Hispanic students, and 33% of black students reported that their schools were not consistent in applying discipline. According to U.S. Department of Education data, African American students account for 17% of all pupils enrolled in public schools, yet make up 32% of all students who receive out-of-school suspensions. White youth constitute 63% of public school enrollees, but only 50% of those suspended or expelled. In 2001, the American Bar Association (ABA) voted in favor of abolishing zero-tolerance laws in schools, based on these policies’ lack of effectiveness and discriminatory application. Almost 90% of public schools in the United States have some form of zero-tolerance policy in place, and evidence shows such policies are most likely to be adopted in districts where the majority of the student body is African American and/or Latino.
On May 20, 2009, Marshawn Pitts, a 15-year-old African American special needs student, was walking down the hallway of his school in Dolton, Illinois, when a school police officer noticed that his shirt was untucked. The officer began shouting at Pitts, who immediately started to tuck in the shirt. He was not fast enough, however: The officer pushed Pitts into a locker, punched him repeatedly in the face, and then slammed him to the ground and pushed his face into the floor. While Pitts lay on the floor, the officer put him in a hold position that has been banned in eight states because it has resulted in more than 20 deaths. Pitts was left with a broken nose and a bruised jaw. Even worse, he and his classmates were left confused, scared, and angry. The entire incident was captured on school video cameras and has been uploaded on YouTube. Pitts was not carrying a weapon, nor did he in any way threaten anyone. Other high-profile cases, like that involving the 1999 Decatur Seven, in which seven African American males were expelled for fighting, and the Jena Six, in which six African American males were criminally charged for beating a white male after nooses (symbolic of lynching) were hung up at the local school, further highlight the racial divide.
One of the consequences of such racially discriminatory policies is what has been called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Between 2000 and 2004, the Denver Public School System saw a 71% increase in the number of students referred to law enforcement, with many of the referrals for nonviolent offenses. Some schools, like those in the Palm Beach County (Florida) system, have created their own police forces. When students are suspended or expelled, it also affects their acquisition of educational credentials, as these students are more likely to drop out of school altogether.
Corporal punishment in the United States disproportionately affects African American students and, in some areas, Native American students. In the 20062007 school year, African American students made up 17.1% of the national student population, but 35.6% of those paddled. In the same year, in the 13 states with the highest rates of paddling, 1.4 times as many African American students were paddled as might be expected given their percentage of the total student population. Although girls of all races were paddled less often than boys, African American girls were nonetheless physically punished at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts in those 13 states during this time period.
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