By Aaron Morrison, Loop 21
On the evening Trayvon Martin was killed in a Sanford, Fla. gated community, it was a school night. However, the 17-year-old Miami student would not have returned to classes with his friends the following morning.
Martin was serving a 10-day out-of-school suspension in the central Florida town, after officials reportedly removed him for marijuana possession, under a "zero tolerance" policy.
If he had been back in Miami – not shut out from a whole week's worth of learning opportunities – Martin may not have come face-to-face with George Zimmerman, the volunteer neighborhood watch captain, who pursued him because he looked "up to something" and shot him during an apparent scuffle.
Martin, an African American, shared the experience of many young black students in American public schools, who are given suspensions and expulsions at a disproportionate rate to other groups. That fact isn't news. But for decades, the disparity has grown exponentially, as some teachers and other education professionals still believe that casting away minority students keeps others safe, and teaches the offending student a lesson.
|Read more about this topic in our local community on The Skanner News' Schools to Prisons Pipeline page|
"We should not believe that just because they are in a classroom that (some teachers) are any different than George Zimmerman," said Judy Browne Dianis, co-director for D.C.-based civil rights group, Advancement Project.
Dianis, who spent 20 years as a civil rights attorney, says there is a patent overreaction by teaching professionals to the misbehavior of black males in public schools. Federal data measuring school equities supports what she called a "rush to judgment" when doling out discipline.
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights shows minority students face harsher discipline. African American boys "are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers," read a DOE statement released earlier this month.
The newest data available, from a 2009 survey of public schools, show black students make up 18 percent of the sample. But 35 percent of them are suspended at least once, and 39 percent are expelled. Latino students come in at a close second.
In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where Martin was enrolled, half of all students who received multiple out-of-school suspensions in 2009 were black. At Dr. Michael M. Krop High School, where Martin reportedly attended, nearly half of the 105 suspensions in 2009 were given to black students, who made up only 35 percent of the school's enrollment.
A spokesman for Miami-Dade schools said out-of-school suspensions dropped from 24,061 to 22,386, over the last two school years. There are 435 schools in the district.
The suspensions "can be expected to drop more for the current year," said spokesman John Schuster. The district also offers in-school suspensions, which were down last year.
Dianis, who did some work with the district on these issues, said individual schools in Miami-Dade have made improvements, but that it's not true across the board.
"These suspensions are for things that are very subjective," Dianis said.
In Martin's case, he had been suspended three times from his high school. In October, he was suspended with friends for writing "W.T.F." on a locker, according to a Miami Herald report.
The first time Martin was suspended, it was for truancy and tardiness. Whether or not the incidences were subjectively assessed, the punishments don't always fit the crimes.
"Why would you suspend a child who is late? What sense does that make," said Marguerite Wright, a clinical psychologist and author of the parenting guide, "I'm chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World."
"The biggest thing is that it tells (students) that they are failures," Wright said. "You're not going to close the achievement gap…because they are not in school."
Wright and Dianis both agreed that the seed of failure could be planted in a student's psyche as early as pre-school.
"At the heart of children doing well in school is forming relationships with their teachers," Wright said. "If you are growing up in these at-risk environments, you start getting these messages early on."
Many learning institutions have effective alternatives to out-of-school suspension. Restorative justice programs commute a normal off-site dismissal to in-school intervention. The restorative model gets students to take responsibility for their actions, in the same way that conflict resolution programs do.
At Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Francisco, Principal Paul Jacobsen used grant money to institute a successful restorative justice program, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday.
Reacting to the Education Department report on school suspensions, state lawmakers in California have proposed a measure to limit out-of-school suspensions. A second proposal would require alternative behavioral and intervention programs, particularly in schools with high rates of suspension or expulsion, the Chronicle reports.
But Dianis said restorative programs are just the half of it. Bluntly, she says racial profiling is as much of a problem in schools as it is in law enforcement – or in Martin's case, supposed vigilante justice.
"In cases where white kids get suspended, it's either you had the drugs, or you didn't," Dianis said. "Either you had the knife, or you didn't."
The color of a student's skin, Dianis added, makes subordination and wearing baseball caps in school suspension worthy offenses. There is no restorative process. They are sent on "vacations" from school, which are frequently unsupervised.
In Trayvon's case, his father Tracy Martin and mother Sybrina Fulton wanted him in Sanford, away from his friends back in Miami, a close family friend told CNN. Martin's suspension was supervised.
Dianis said students who are put out on the street, thanks to swift suspension from school, are at-risk for more of the same trouble that got them the suspension in the first place.
It's been reported that Trayvon had aspirations in the field of aviation. An e-mail account belonging to the teen, which was apparently hacked by an anarchist group, showed Trayvon was looking for colleges to attend and was preparing to take the SATs.
Although Martin family lawyers have not confirmed the breach, it's clear there was more to Trayvon, the student, than occasional mischief and a few suspensions.