School safety

By Michelle Chen May 19, 2009

Our schools go to great lengths to teach kids a lesson. Cedric Napoleon, a 14 year-old with behavioral problems at a Killeen, Texas public school, wouldn’t stay put in his seat. So his teacher restrained him by pinning him to the floor. Cedric eventually stopped moving–and never got up. The cause of death was described as “mechanical compression of the trunk.” Cedric’s foster mother, Toni Price, recalled in a congressional testimony that when Cedric came to live with her, he already bore a scar from a beating at a "bootcamp" for troubled youth. While the teacher never faced any criminal penalty for the death, she said, “If I’d treated Cedric that way at home, I’d be in jail." A House hearing today probed the excessive use of seclusion and restraint on children in schools. An accompanying Government Accountability Office report revealed that "Almost all of the allegations we identified involved children with disabilities," such as autism. Noting alarming gaps in oversight and regulation, the GAO reported, "these allegations raise serious issues for a significant number of children, families, and those entrusted with their education and care." With a lack of comprehensive data on restraint-related abuse, the report did not include an analysis of cases by race or ethnicity. But other research suggests that students of color are especially vulnerable to harsh and punitive treatment in the name of discipline.
According to the National Education Association. Black children "viewed as having ‘challenging behaviors’ " are referred at higher rates to programs for children with emotional disabilities. In addition, “[culturally and linguistically diverse] students have higher rates of office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions from school. Often, they receive more severe punishment than white students do for the same type of behavior.” A multi-state Human Rights Watch study documented a disproportionate use of corporal punishment—that is, beating kids to get them to act a certain way—against Black and American Indian children. Civil rights groups have pointed to the “school to prison pipeline”—the systematic criminalization of children, particularly Black and Latino youth, through “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies and police aggression in schools. As the investigation of abusive school discipline takes shape in Washington, a closer look at disciplinary patterns in schools could reveal how race and segregation influence who is punished, and how. Image: Toni Price next to a picture of Cedric Napoleon (Harry Hamburg / AP)