Black Boys in Crisis: Is Punishment Too Harsh?

It’s no secret that Black boys are considered the trouble makers of society. In America’s prison systems, black citizens are incarcerated at six times the rates of white ones – and the NAACP predicts that one in three of this generation of Black boys will spend some time locked up. Do these numbers tell the true story though? Are Black boys inherently more dangerous than their white and Hispanic peers – or are they the products of racial profiling and a society that sets them up to fail?

In the first part of this series I looked at the connection between low reading ability and a lifetime of struggle for Black young men in the U.S., but today I want to focus on a non-academic area that impacts this group in childhood: punishment that begins in K-12 classrooms.

Troubling Stats in Schools

Nearly 75 percent of all schools in the U.S. report at least one violent incident in their schools each year, but that number rises to 82 percent for schools with a majority of Black students. Though Hispanic boys are the most likely to be involved with gang activity at school, it is certainly an issue for Black boys too – with 31 percent of students nationwide reporting seeing Black gang activity in their schools. Violence is just one part of the criminal side of K-12 hallways, though. There are also higher numbers of non-violent crimes, like theft, in schools where more students are Black than any other race.

All of that being said, there still IS violence in schools where Black students are the minority, and committed by non-Black students. Yet, over and over again statistics show that punishment for Black boys – even first-time offenders – in schools is harsher than any other demographic. Consider these facts:

• Black students make up just 18 percent of children in U.S. preschools, but make up half of those youngsters who are suspended.
• Black boys receive two-thirds of all school suspensions nationwide – all demographics and both genders considered.
• In Chicago, 75 percent of all students arrested in public schools are Black.

Also troubling is the fact that not all of the Black boys taken from their schools in handcuffs are violent, or even criminals. Increasingly, school-assigned law enforcement officers are leading these students from their schools hallways for minor offenses, including class disruption, tardiness and even non-violent arguments with other students. It seems that it is easier to remove these students from class through the stigma of suspension or arrest than to look for in-school solutions.
Minnesota civil rights attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds writes that “it is a continual affront to the human dignity of black boys to be treated as second class citizens within the public school system and made to feel as though they are not welcome in mainstream classroom settings.”

In Minneapolis, for example, an Office for Black Male Student Achievement has been created within the public schools to address the specific challenges that face young black males face when navigating the public school system. It appears that the effort may just be smoke and mirrors, however, as only $200,000 has been dedicated to it – which amounts to just $28 per African American boy.

School-to-Prison pipeline

School suspension, and certainly arrest, is just the beginning of a life considered on the wrong side of the law for many Black boys. By 18 years of age, 30 percent of Black males have been arrested at least once, compared to just 22 percent of white males. Those numbers rise to 49 percent for Black men by the age of 23, and 38 percent of white males. Researchers from several universities concluded earlier this year that arrests early in life often set the course for more crimes and incarceration throughout the rest of the offender’s lifetime.

Turning our backs on the misbehavior of our K-12 youth doesn’t teach them a lesson, or lead to lives that are changed for the better. It only simplifies the present, paving the way for a future of crime and other misbehavior. In order to change the troubling trends of Black men and crime, we first need to address the way Black boys are disciplined in K-12 schools and look for better solutions to suspensions and arrests.

photo credit: Elliott Fusy-Pudal via photopin cc

Choose your Reaction!
  • Based on these statistics (which are really, really troubling), I would say that yes, the punishment is too harsh and it is also not effective. It sounds like an entire discipline rehaul needs to take place with more targeting on fixing the core issues, not just punishing the kids.

  • I really don’t follow that seeing discipline in schools leads to prison time? These boys are exposed to a lot more things than just what they see in school. Let’s start with those issues before accusing the discipline systems we have in place.

  • If we would just invest the money in getting these kids the extra help they need, instead of kicking them out of our schools, we would see the benefits down the road (less in prison, less stress on taxpayers). Removal from normal society, like public schools, is not the answer — as this piece clearly shows.

  • I don’t think punishment in school leads to prison time, like edmom5 wrote below. While the punishment may be a bit on the harsh side, I think it is essential to administer discipline to any and all students who misbehave and act out. I do not believe black men are more dangerous than their peers.

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