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Disparate Impact and Black Students

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court articulated the disparate impact standard in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. Although the specific ruling in the case involved hiring practices, it has far wider applications. What it means is that a policy cannot have disproportionate racial effects unless there is an absolute necessity for the policy ("How Not to Fight Discrimination," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 26). Education, of course, is not the only area where the standard is applied, but it is there that headlines tend to be made.

Consider a study a year ago of 72,000 schools that found black students are "suspended, expelled, and arrested in school" at higher rates than white students. Although black students comprised 18 percent of those enrolled, they accounted for 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all students expelled ("What About the Kids Who Behave?" The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 10, 2012).

On their face, the numbers are extremely disturbing because they suggest that black students are being singled out for punishment. But there is another side to the story. It has to do with thinking of blacks (or any other race) as a monolith. They are not. When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, busing resulted in the enrollment of a large number of black students at my high school. Their parents wanted them to get a better education than what they were receiving in their neighborhood schools. Some of the black students were disruptive and were suspended, but so were white students. I still don't understand why race should be an issue. What about black students who want to learn? Don't they deserve the right to do so?

Critics will be quick to maintain that I miss the point. They say it's the disproportionate number of blacks who are disciplined that is the real issue. But what if there is a reason for the imbalance that reflects differences in behavior among students? A study by The Education Trust-West found that behavioral issues often begin as early as second grade ("Black students' learning gaps start early, report says," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 26). It attributed the problem to the fact that black children are less likely than their white peers to have books at home or to be read to everyday by their parents. These differences contribute to the learning gap at school. When students can't keep up with their classmates, they tend to become disruptive. School officials have little choice but to remove these students so that others can learn.

I don't see this as prejudice, although it certainly violates the disparate impact standard. If efforts to provide a quality education for all students are to succeed, then common sense has to prevail. If not, the classrooms that will likely suffer the most if standards of behavior are revamped to avoid the charge of disparate impact will be populated by black students. Why should they be held hostage by the acts of a few students of any color? I find it strange that no one speaks for them.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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