As if the Schenectady school district didn’t have enough problems, it’s now got to come up with a plan to stop what the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights determined is a pattern of racial discrimination in the disciplining of students with behavioral problems.
The federal investigation (which, to its credit, the district cooperated with) found that elementary teachers routinely branded disproportionate numbers of non-white kids who misbehaved in class as emotionally disturbed. In many cases, that required them to be removed from regular classrooms, either part- or full-time, for special education services. Typically, those students miss a lot of classroom instruction and never recover academically, even if they’re re-integrated back into the classroom at some point.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if there was evidence that minority students were acting up more in class than white kids, but the probe found that teachers often tolerated more of the same types of behaviors from white students than they did from blacks and Hispanics. That’s clearly discriminatory, and the district needs to get the (mostly white) teachers to change.
Better training in classroom management would be a good place to start, but the district also needs a more carefully elucidated, consistently enforced policy for dealing with discipline problems, within individual schools as well as across the district. Individual teachers and principals can’t be given too much discretion because uneven application of the rules is unfair, and the consequences of a referral are severe.
The district’s special education teams also have to review the status of referrals on a regular basis to make sure that these students aren’t simply being shunted off permanently.
Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more work by a lot of people, and undoubtedly a fair amount of money, to fix the problem. The good news is that some of it is already under way. But for a district that has had to cut its budget to the bone in recent years, finding extra money is not going to be easy. Ironically, one of the big reasons the district is so fiscally challenged is that the state has been providing it far too little aid given the disproportionate share of poor — many of them minorities — that populate it.
Thus it has been both a victim of racial discrimination and a perpetrator. One would like to think that if it had the proper resources — training procedures, ample special ed. personnel, staff psychologists, alternative schools, etc. — the discrimination issue wouldn’t have cropped up. But money can’t be used as an excuse here. Few school districts in the area are getting the money they deserve, thanks to the economy and the political whims of the state Legislature, but they’re not getting fingers pointed at them.