When ‘zero tolerance’ goes too far

Photo via NBC News: http://nbcnews.to/1nGKpQT
Photo via NBC News: http://nbcnews.to/1nGKpQT


Dontadrian Bruce (pictured above), age 15, is a student at Olive Branch High School in Olive Branch, Miss.

On Feb. 3, assistant principal Todd Nichols summoned him out of class. Nichols showed Dontadrian a photo he had posed for during a recent biology project, in which the boy had his hand up displaying three raised fingers – his thumb, forefinger and middle finger. “You’re suspended,” said Nichols, “because you’re holding up gang signs in this picture.”

Three days later, a disciplinary committee confirmed Dontadrian’s punishment: “Indefinite suspension with a recommendation of expulsion.”

Wait, what? The above photo was taken by the boy’s mother, Janet Hightower. It recreates the “incriminating” image: “He’s a good child,” she insists. “I know what he does 24 hours a day.”

Dontadrian also says he had no clue that this gesture was affiliated with the Vice Lords, a Chicago-based street gang with active Deep South chapters. He claims he was holding up three fingers to represent the number on his football jersey, like the other players did during practice.

Read more about Dontadrian’s hand gesture and how, per U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, “[exclusionary] discipline is applied disproportionately to children of color and students with disabilities,” here via PolicyMic.

Carlos McCray, a professor in Fordham’s Graduate School of Education, is familiar with cases like Dontadrian’s. His research links discipline with achievement in urban schools and, most recently, he commented on a case (also in Mississippi) in which a 5-year-old who was nabbed by police for wearing the ‘wrong color’ shoes.

McCray co-authored this book on hip-hop culture, values, and school: http://amzn.to/1ixvIRd
McCray co-authored this book on hip-hop culture, values, and school: http://amzn.to/1ixvIRd

McCray’s research found educators are subscribing to the utilitarian principle, thinking, “If I can get a few of these problem students out of the classroom, then I’ll be able to teach everyone else,” it’s effectively ushering a number of students out of school.

That line of thinking is flawed, McCray said, again pointing to the numbers. The New York Times looked at Baltimore public schools and found that in 2004 alone, there were 26,000 school suspensions and expulsions.

“That’s very problematic,” he said. “Research shows the more students are suspended or expelled, the more they’ll end up dropping out. Thirty percent of sophomores who drop out have been suspended three times more than their peers who remain in class. While we talk about the achievement gap, we also have to talk about the discipline gap. How can students learn when they are not in class?”

Great question. Read more about McCray’s work here via Inside Fordham.

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