COMMENTARY | For only the second time in history, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating a school district for alleged racism. According to Reuters , schools in Seattle are being scrutinized for their high proportion of punitive discipline for African-American students. In middle school and high school, African-American students were suspended up to 3 1/2 times as often as white students when compared to their respective percentages of the student population. Black students were approximately 18 percent of Seattle middle schoolers and 20 percent of Seattle high schoolers but accounted for a full 40 percent of expulsions.
I worry that reliance on sheer statistics can be misleading, especially when looking at minority statistics. Mathematically speaking, minority statistics (meaning numerical minority, not racial, ethnic, or religious minority) are more prone to fluctuation. For example, a single additional instance in a group that comprises 10 percent of a population with cause a disparately large statistical change than a single additional instance in a group that comprises 50 percent of more of a population. It is easier for a minority statistic to become disparately skewed by a few outliers.
What does this mean in real-world speak? It means that locking treatment of minority populations into minority statistics is a bad idea. If African-American students make up only 10 percent of a school population and one of the African-American students gets in trouble, the school might balk at punishing the student because the statistical bump will look bad. Among my AP classes I have three African-American students out of 39 total students. If one of the three African-American students does something wrong or receives substandard grades, the statistics look bad. Fearing race-based investigations launched solely by statistics without descriptive evidence would unfairly prevent me from fairly grading or disciplining my few African-American students.
Making teachers and administrators afraid of exercising fair discipline because of the risk of statistical triggerings of racism investigations helps nobody, especially the students supposedly aided by such investigations. Allowing a group of students to go through K-12 education with lax discipline due to fear of allegations of racism will harm those students upon graduation, when 12 years of lax discipline suddenly confronts the tough standards of the real world. Prompt investigations of specific allegations of racism should occur, but such investigations should not be prompted by mere statistics.