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Utah’s Ferguson Problem

Darrien Hunt

While most of the country is focusing on the shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer, the small town of Saratoga Springs, Utah has a similar controversy brewing.  Several people called the police about a 22 year old black man, Darrien Hunt, who was walking around a shopping center with a sword.  Police arrived, and shot and killed Hunt.  It turns out the sword was plastic (neither bystanders, nor police knew that at the time.)  An autopsy shows that Hunt was shot in the back, casting doubt on the police department’s version of events.

Police have looked into Hunt’s background and have discovered drug use.  The family counters that drugs were not in Hunt’s system at the time of the shooting.  “It’s another example of character assassination on this young man,” the family lawyer has said. To make matters worse, Hunt’s white mother, Susan has been charged by the police.  Police had pulled over a motorist for a traffic violation.  When Susan discovered the officers, she yelled at the officers, asking them if they were going to shoot the motorist, and police claim that she hit an officer on the arm with her purse.  She has been charged with four misdemeanor charges, including disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer.  This just seems like a public relations nightmare for the Saratoga Springs police department.

A recent episode of This American Life documented a study by Texas A&M University, and found that black students received harsher punishment than white students for the same offenses.

Texas, somewhat miraculously, had followed every single public school student from seventh grade through graduation– the seventh graders of 2000, 2001, 2002. And they had documented everything– report cards, if the kid was poor, Asian, switched schools, gotten in trouble, followed them all the way through graduation.

So Thomson could ask the researchers in College Station at Texas A&M, how many white kids were suspended? For what? How many times? Which schools?

Michael Thompson

I was just– all these numbers. The image I have is these guys in Texas A&M with white lab coats. We would joke that all the lights would dim in College Station each time they would run an analysis of this thing, because it was such a massive data set.

Chana Joffe

The lab coats peered down at a million students’ lives– the schools they attended, how they did, when they got in trouble. And they determined that African American and Hispanic students were twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their white peers for their first offense. When they looked at African American boys in Texas, 83% were suspended at least once. And usually, they were suspended a lot more than once. That includes anything a school calls suspension.

But still, take 10 black boys, two of them made it through middle and high school without being suspended. And what kind of infractions were they getting suspended for? Most of the time, these were not for big things, like hitting a teacher or bringing a weapon to school. They were for things like disrespect, insubordination, willful defiance, the kind of incident that often begins when an angry kid won’t take his hat off.

OK, and one more striking thing you can see in the Texas numbers– kids who were suspended were much more likely to be arrested outside of school, three times as likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

Michael Thompson

To be honest, it was a little bit of a spine-tingling moment, because I kept thinking about how city advocates had been saying this is such a common event. And my instant reaction was, this is going to give a whole lot more credibility to this conversation than we’ve ever had before.

Chana Joffe

They’re right. I mean, what you’re saying is you’ve just found that they’re right.

Michael Thompson

Yeah. At that point, that’s right.

Chana Joffe

The idea of suspending a young person for bad behavior– what is that? A kid who’s disrespectful or insubordinate does not want to be in class. So you suspend them? Just saying that out loud, that sounds weird, right?

A couple years ago, the state of Maryland wrote a law– state legislator sat down and wrote this law– that says you cannot suspend students for being truant. If a kid skips school, you can’t punish him by telling him, you can’t come to school. They needed a law to make that clear.

I talked to a sociologist named Pedro Noguera who told me that, over the last few decades, suspensions have become the go-to move in response to disruptive behavior, for everyone, actually, but especially black and Hispanic kids.

Pedro Noguera

Denying them learning time, which is, I think, the most ridiculous part of it.

Chana Joffe

And because of the Texas numbers, we now know that those same kids are at a much higher risk of being arrested. So is there a connection here? One way to look at this is just that our society gives tougher punishments to black and Hispanic kids when they are JJ’s age, when they’re in preschool, and when they’re in high school, and when they’re old enough to go to prison. The issue is not school. It’s just racism.

But Noguera says school is an important part of this picture. And here’s the theory he laid out for me. You suspend a kid, he misses school, he finds it hard to catch up, he feels frustrated, falls behind. And maybe just as important, he learns he is bad. Because he feels bad when he’s in school, he acts bad.

Pedro Noguera

There’s this assumption that, if we get rid of the bad people, that the good people will be able to learn, the good people will be safe. What we continue to ignore is that we are producing the bad people. We’re producing in school the bad behavior.

Chana Joffe

Producing it through the system of punishment that convinces some kids that they’re bad.

In May, 2011, Michael Thompson got a meeting with the Attorney General of the United States. And he showed him the Texas numbers. And two months later, the Attorney General and the Secretary of Education were standing together at a press conference about discipline in schools. They started gathering their own numbers from schools, all over the country this time. And those numbers were worse, even in preschool.

In March this year, the Department of Education issued a report that said black children make up 18% of preschoolers, but they make up 48% of preschool children suspended more than once.

What do you make of this?  Do you think police are harsher on blacks and minorities than whites?

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