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Unequal City’: School Discipline Disparities Through Youth’s Lens

The recent viral video of a school resource office throwing a student in her desk to the floor in a South Carolina classroom has led to a national debate over school discipline policies and procedures. While there is ample data to show that African-American and Latino students are disproportionately disciplined in public schools, author Carla Shedd took her research to the next level, interviewing a wide variety of students at four Chicago high schools to document their views and experience with school discipline practices.

“Both the sociological literature and our national discussions of opportunity and discrimination have given the perceptions and experiences of young people short shrift,” Shedd writes in her new book, "Unequal City."

“Although as educators and researchers, as politicians and cultural critics, we routinely lament the problems of youth today, we spend precious little time seriously trying to understand their motivations and their experiences,” writes Shedd.

By combining the voices of these young people with her own work, Shedd opens a door onto a generation whose experiences reflect the inequalities in our society.

Author Carla Shedd. Barbara Alper

The unequal outcomes in school discipline policies are incontrovertible. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Black and Latino students are much more likely to be disciplined, and face greater levels of in- and out-of-school suspensions. A study by the University of Pennsylvania of 13 southern states found that Blacks are only 24 percent of students enrolled in public schools, but they are 48 percent of students suspended and 49 percent of students expelled. And the research shows that racial disparities in school discipline actually begin in preschool.

Shedd spent nearly a decade researching, doing field work, and writing Unequal City. She hopes that her book can provide a “much needed wide-angle lens” for understanding the reality of our public schools. Many students at predominantly minority schools, she notes, experience school as a place with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, lockdowns, and pat-downs – instead of as a safe, nurturing environment for learning.

A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Shedd is currently an assistant professor of Sociology at Columbia University. She has received fellowships and grants from the Russell Sage Foundation, Ford Foundation, National Consortium on Violence Research, Columbia University, and Northwestern University. She has also appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC Shift’s Nerding Out, and C-SPAN.

Shedd recently spoke with NBC News about school discipline polices and her new book; here is our condensed interview.

NBC: Since you have researched school discipline policies, what was your reaction to the Spring Valley High incident?

CS: I really hate watching those videos, particularly of vulnerable black and brown bodies. It took me a while to watch it. I was appalled. Seeing the student as a child, as a person, – and then thinking about it thinking about the incident as a mother myself – it’s hard. Maybe this level of violence doesn't happen every time, but arrests in school are very common. They do not happen in way we would define as gentle. What was striking about this time was that it happened in classroom, it was a girl with a peaceful reaction. It is interesting, from a social science perspective thinking about the public reaction to it. They seemed to want other explanations for why this happened – other than an officer used force unnecessarily to deal with peaceful noncompliance. The public’s reaction and response really struck me, people kept asking for more information as if the video alone was not damning.

NBC: What did you glean from your research on the views of police among Black and Latino youth in Chicago?

CS: These teenagers have a remarkable vantage point on how things can work. If police officers are embedded in their school environment, they have accumulated a lot of data about the role of this entity. They have an assessment of whether they feel safe around police, of whether police are providing services they are supposed to provide.

"The students told me that the police often read their physical selves without seeing them as a person. If we made a better connection, there are potentially positive results of having police in schools," said Shedd.

The idea of the officer being there to protect them doesn’t go over so well when they (the students) are viewed with suspicion. They figure out how officers view them, and figure out their place. The students want the police around, but they want them to better target their efforts at the people who are causing harm.

Kids say, “I wish we had the police on that corner, instead of bothering me when I go to the movies.” They want better targets of police practices and they don't want to be considered wholesale criminals because they are male, black, Latino, or dressed a certain way. The students told me that the police often read their physical selves without seeing them as a person. If we made a better connection, there are potentially positive results of having police in schools. If an officer makes a connection with a kid, it can change them. As of now, many students are reading the expectations that police have about them.

NBC News: You write that the traditional public high school or neighborhood school is nearly extinct. Why is that?

CS: One reason is we have actually closed or combined them. There is nostalgia for how things were back in the day. In many cities, that was disrupted with busing. As people realized their neighborhoods were not equal, they realized that their schools were not equal. So where we used to have a small choice of schools in our own neighborhoods, now we’re seeing kids not enrolling in their neighborhood schools or “testing in” to other schools. We have seen this decline in Chicago. Tilden High School, which serves predominantly African-American and Latino students, could enroll over 4000 students. Actually they enroll 400.

It’s like a reinforcing cycle; districts don’t invest in these schools, so students don’t enroll in them, which furthers the argument that they should be closed. These declining enrollments are used by proponents of charter schools as proof that students and their families want choice. No, it’s more like students don’t want to attend school in a ghost town. The context of what sets these processes in motion is important.

NBC: We’ve seen movement away from school policing and towards “restorative justice” in places like Los Angeles and Broward County, Florida. Are you optimistic this trend will continue?

CS: I think we are on the precipice of change. Chicago public schools are changing; the code of conduct used to have a more carceral (prison-like) form of discipline. Things have gotten a little less strict, in that they’ve made it so that principals do not have to call police for certain infractions. On paper, they have loosened the ties between the educational system and the criminal justice system.

I am not sure what this means for the culture we have created, with teachers calling principals who call the police. It is one thing in theory, but are people actually changing? We are going the right way, by adding peer juries and moving towards restorative justice. A longer evaluation is necessary to see if the culture is changing. We’ve had this alliance of police officers and the schools, even when crime rates have gone down – but police are embedded in the school structure now.

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