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President Obama’s “Rethink Discipline” Initiative, Part 2: An Attempt to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Posted by Ann Costantino on 19th June 2017

Source of Photo/Illustration: Jesse Lenz



Peering through the Pipeline to Prison

This is Part 2 of a 3-part story looking into Baltimore County Public Schools’ discipline issues which have undeniably exploded over social media in the months leading up to the end of the school year.

Videos of beatings and assaults within classrooms, bathrooms, cafeterias and aboard BCPS buses have bubbled up to the surface, forcing citizens and lawmakers to take a long hard look at what is happening in the school system.

At the beginning of next school year, in September, the Board of Education will focus on the topic of discipline, holding a public hearing on the topic.  The public would be wise to educate itself in advance, on the influx of discipline problems in BCPS, and specifically what has led to them.

In Part 1 of this story, the extensive history leading to BCPS’ behavior and discipline policy changes were revealed.  Through a joint effort between the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Justice (DOJ), Education Secretaries Duncan and King, along with Attorney General Holder, pushed to end what statistics show are disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates between black and white students, as well as those with disabilities.

In 2015, the ED and the DOJ joined forces, launching an initiative called Rethink Discipline, in which zero-tolerance behavior policies at school systems across the country were encouraged to be revised and ultimately eliminated.

A well-intentioned initiative which aimed to end the School-to-Prison Pipeline, the Rethink Discipline movement’s unintended consequences are becoming evident in school systems across the country – including Baltimore County Public Schools – and not just for black students, which the initiative targeted.

Termed the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper and Rethink Discipline initiatives aimed to permanently interrupt a significant social issue that has led to the unlived potential of a segment of the country’s African American population, and to end a cycle that has plagued communities for decades.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the school-to-prison pipeline is a “disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems” and that “‘zero-tolerance’ behavior policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”

My Brother’s Keeper and Rethink Discipline, intended to end this cycle while providing the conditions that could unleash students’ potential that otherwise would have been stunted had they been ejected from their classrooms prematurely.

This was a movement intended to allow all black children to soar uninterrupted, having every opportunity that America has to offer them in a culture where many have felt stunted, lost, held back and unable to ascend and where discipline practices have been seen by civil rights organizations as being too harsh, unforgiving and racially disproportionate.


Diversity Training

Controversial racial diversity training organization, Pacific Educational Group (PEG), its founder, Glenn Singleton, and his Courageous Conversations trainings, dovetailed right into the Rethink Discipline movement, fulfilling for BCPS one of the ED and DOJ’s action plans from their Guiding Principles Action Steps (See Part 1 of this story) on how school districts could “administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin”  which was to “provide regular training and supports to all school personnel.

Honing in on the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” cycle, Pacific Educational Group attributes unfair discipline practices to white teachers’ preconceptions, where Singleton asserts that white teachers’ – particularly old white teachers’ – inherent racism is what clouds their judgment and gives them license to suspend and mistreat students disproportionately, thus thrusting these kids off track during their educational careers.

A prominently featured Hechinger Report article found on PEG’s, Courageous Conversations website titled “What’s Wrong with White Teachers,” reporter Andre Perry explains that “the unconscious bias, racial anxieties and stereotypes that contribute to the criminalization of black people, improper medical diagnoses and employment discrimination also lend themselves to lower expectations of black students and no-tolerance discipline policies in schools.”

Singleton’s Courageous Conversations diversity training sessions are part of the professional development for school systems across the country – including Baltimore County’s, since 2013.  The diversity training intends to train teachers, staff, and board members, and – in some cases, the student body – to be culturally conscious and racially sensitive, while rethinking who is disciplined or treated unfairly and why.

Some Baltimore County Public Schools employees have called this training a “beating down of teachers,” in which it has left some teachers feeling demotivated and uninspired, lowering their morale and making them rethink working for Baltimore County Public Schools.

In Singleton’s books and manuals, he has placed great emphasis on school systems working through the difficult conversations around race and racism, having white educators acknowledge their “white privilege,” yet encouraging some training session participants to allow for a lack of resolution after the sessions – leaving bitterness in the wake of these difficult conversations, while providing no unifying message nor invitation to heal. “Expect and accept a lack of closure. As much as participants appreciate definitive answers, conversations about race usually provide no resolution,” he asserts.

Singleton has also written about the inequities in education and that differences put minority children at a disadvantage.  Some differences Singleton has cited as existing between white and black students is that “working hard, being punctual and planning for the future” are white people traits and not expectations teachers should put on black students.

Presumed District 2 County Council candidate and recently resigned Baltimore County School Board member, Marisol Johnson, has been vocal about representing Baltimore County’s majority-minority population.

White students make up 40% of Baltimore County’s student population and Johnson has fiercely defended the majority percentage – made up of minorities – to ensure that BCPS’ majority-minority population is represented with a voice.

Following the sudden resignation of Baltimore County Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, on Ms. Johnson’s “Elect Marisol Johnson” election page, she had this to say: “Together, Dr. Dance and I brought the Courageous Conversation diversity training to the Board of Education, created the Board’s Equity Policy, and demanded a transparent and accountable approach to the budget.” 

Some stakeholders have lamented Ms. Johnson’s approach to advocating for diversity. Disliking the factious language she sometimes uses in making her points – along with knowledge of her assumed run for the Baltimore County Council – stakeholders from both parties have expressed that she might not be the best choice to lead the charge on this topic, due in part to the sarcastic and hostile tone with which she has chosen to engage community members, and all while a member of BCPS’ Board of Education.

It is no doubt a very polarizing time in the United States.  Baltimore County has not escaped the grips of the angst plaguing its citizens.  And it is high time that we seek leaders who can bring communities together, and not tear them apart while doing so and (ironically) in the name of integration.

One stakeholder has chosen to confront Johnson at Board meetings, expressing discontent at the divisiveness of her language.  Baltimore County resident, David G., has spoken to the Board about Johnson’s approach being divisive and unbecoming of a leader of her stature, stating at a recent Board of Education meeting that Johnson has been “divisive and damaging to the school system and the Board,” while admonishing the rest of the board to lead with more formality than Johnson had demonstrated during her tenure.


In-School Segregation

Dr. Lisa Williams, BCPS’ Executive Director of Equity and Cultural Proficiency and the facilitator of Pacific Educational Group’s Courageous Conversations Diversity training for BCPS,  shared with an audience in this video that in Baltimore County, Special Education, Advanced Placement (AP),  Gifted and Talented (GT) classes, emotional disability programs and suspensions are all types of intentional segregation within school buildings.

Williams said “If we don’t deal with racism and systemic white supremacy that is a part of our modus operandi – day in and day out – it won’t matter that we integrate our schools.”

The changes to Baltimore County’s Gifted and Talented program, which included removing GT from all BCPS elementary schools in early 2016, are among the many changes to the school system bemoaned by advocacy groups and experts, where parents and educators have argued that different levels of difficulty (or support) provide students with what they need in order to achieve and be successful – thus meeting students at their individualized (or “personalized”) levels.

In a Baltimore Sun article on the subject, reporter Liz Bowie stated that “parents and the teachers union contend that educators are already overwhelmed, and now they must juggle multiple groups of students working with different books and curricula in one class. 

Is this merely an issue of misinterpretation?  Is this truly an issue of in-school segregation or is it possible that it is actually differentiation of instruction designed to meet students’ academic needs?

Even still, there is evidence of disproportionate GT acceptance rates according to the Office of Civil Rights; and its statistics do show the existence of disparate GT placement percentages among the races.

According to a 2016 article published by the American Educational Research Association, citing data from the Office for Civil Rights, “African American students constitute 16.7% of the student population but just 9.8% of students in gifted programs. Similarly, Hispanic students constitute 22.3% of students but only 15.4% of students receiving gifted services.”

2013-2014 Civil Rights data revealed that black and Latino students made up 42% of student enrollment in schools that offered GT programs, yet  – of the white students, who made up 49% of students enrolled in schools that offer GT programs –  57% were enrolled in GT.  The difference is staggering.

The disproportionate discipline practices and disparate selection for participation in programs such as Gifted and Talented and Advanced Placement, is what is attributed to keeping certain minority students held back, as has placement into special education services.

Researchers do not agree, however, on whether or not minority students are over or under represented in special education classes.  While some studies show that a higher percentage of African American students in special education are represented in those classes than the percentage of African Americans in the general population, others lament the missed opportunity to properly identify more students who would benefit from interventions special education would afford them.

In a 2015 University of Pennsylvania study, researchers investigated whether elementary and middle schools children were disproportionately represented in special education and found that “minority children were consistently less likely than otherwise similar White, English-speaking children to be identified as disabled and so to receive special education services. From kindergarten entry to the end of middle school, racial- and ethnic-minority children were less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments, or emotional disturbances. Language-minority children were less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities or speech or language impairments.

Those researchers also found that “children who are minorities are more likely to be exposed to the risk factors that contribute to having a disability: more likely to be exposed to lead, born into poverty, and fetal alcohol syndrome.”

The U.S. Department of Education and DOJ, under the Obama Administration, aimed to change school discipline policies to affect change on what has been seen to be disproportionate racial suspension rates, and for those with disabilities.

These movements are leaving school districts with no choice but to fix the appearance of statistics.  But are they doing so in favor of getting to the actual causes for the behavior?   Is this simply a game of numbers?

And is this fair to America’s students?

Misunderstanding this key point may be the most devastating unintended consequence of the Rethink Discipline movement.

What do you think?  The Post would like to know!


Next Up: A Numbers Game: The Dangerous One-Two Punch of Using Numbers and Blame to ‘Fix’ Student Behavior in Baltimore County and Beyond. Part 3


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