What Would Martin Luther King, Jr. Say About 'Behave or Begone'?

As a health advocate for children and youth, I am out of my zone of comfort and expertise when it comes to the issue of the various challenges facing our education system (although everyone seems to have an opinion about how to fix public education in our nation these days). As I pen these thoughts on the birthday celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., I wonder what our nation's most illustrious civil rights leader would say about the epidemic of school suspensions and expulsions in so many of our urban public schools in California and nationally.

Consider the following data trends in the U.S., apparently catalyzed, at least in part, by the 1999 Columbine shootings and the creation of a "zero tolerance" culture in our high schools:

  • The state of California suspended or expelled students over 750,000 times in 2010.
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics, schools are suspending and expelling students at a rate more than double that of 1974.
  • In the state of Texas, a robust statewide research study on school suspensions showed that nearly 60 percent of all high school students had been suspended at least once during their school years.
  • Research shows that African American and Latino students experience disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion as compared to other races, even when controlling for other variables. For example, in 2004, African American students were found to be four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same infraction; and Latinos were two times more likely to be suspended than white students for the same infraction.

Statistically, the primary causes for suspensions and expulsions are not drugs, weapons, or serious violent offenses -- presumably the target of "zero tolerance" policies in school settings -- but rather less serious transgressions like schoolyard tussles and talking back to teachers.

Hence, the rationale for weighing the cause and effect of such discipline policies on our youth generally, and African-American boys and young men specifically. Community leaders and youth advocates have effectively described the effect of these policies and practices as the portal to the incarceration superhighway in disinvested neighborhoods for black youth, as a punitive culture begins in the school setting and then culminates in our prison systems. Behave or begone.

The multi-pronged national crisis of high school dropout, unemployment, and incarceration in African-American males -- significant in Latino and a growing number of Asian Pacific Islander young men as well -- cannot possibly be addressed unless we can keep our kids in school so that they can graduate. You can't teach an empty desk and a youngster can't learn if he's not in the classroom.

Fortunately the matter of excessive expulsions and suspensions appears to be a solvable problem, and courageous public school administrators have begun to show the way. In select Oakland, Richmond, and East LosAngeles schools, school administrators have cut suspension rates by 50-80 percent, emphasizing in-school discipline practices that maintain a sense of accountability and personal responsibility for unacceptable behavior.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education." Surely, Dr. King would have applauded these local school teachers for tending to the character of these young men without the negative effect of unnecessarily harsh discipline practices. From our vantage point as a private health foundation, many of these young men exhibiting unruly behavior in school are likely coping with their own behavioral health issues and may require mentoring, counseling, or mental health treatment themselves.

We offer our support to beleaguered school administrators and teachers who are intent upon solving this problem.

I never had the fortune of speaking with, working with, or walking with Martin Luther King, Jr. But I suspect that he would express concern, if not outrage, about schools effectively pushing our young men away rather than embracing them.