No one is saying Kenneth Russell is an angel. The 16-year-old high school junior from Salida, Calif., is a C student with a filthy mouth who has been known to saunter into class on his own schedule. And, yes, as Russell readily admits, after a bout of name-calling with a white classmate last fall, he threw the first punch in a fistfight that left him battered and his adversary with five stitches over his left eye.
But is Russell actually a victim? The N.A.A.C.P. and some of his teachers think so. His father John has filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, charging that Kenneth was unjustly punished for the fight. Although officials from the local Modesto school district ruled the scuffle "mutual," the white classmate received a three-day suspension while Russell was sent home for a little more than a month and later expelled from his school and assigned to one farther from where he lives. "It's been hard catching up with my work," says Kenneth. "I lost out on a month of my high school life."
For years black parents have quietly seethed about stories like Russell's. Now civil rights groups have given those silent suspicions a recognizable name: racial profiling. They contend that not unlike police who stop people on the basis of race, teachers and school officials discipline black students more often--and more harshly--than whites. The result: black students are more likely to slip behind in their studies and abandon school altogether--if they're not kicked out first. In Modesto, black students are 2 1/2 times as likely as their white peers to be expelled. This kind of treatment persists not only in the farm country of Modesto but also in urban districts like Minneapolis, Minn. During the 1998-99 school year, only one state (South Carolina) suspended 9% or more of its white students, but 35 states suspended that percentage of blacks, according to The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. The syndrome has even acquired a catchphrase: "learning while black."
In the past two years, advocacy groups in a dozen cities have taken up the cause, and the N.A.A.C.P. called on every state to submit a plan to redress discipline and other educational inequities by May 10. Last week the group announced that it would file civil rights complaints against the 22 states that missed the deadline. Meanwhile, legislators in Maryland and Rhode Island have set up task forces to study school discipline. In April, under a new state law, Ohio released suspension data broken down by race for each of its school districts. Earlier this month the Rev. Jesse Jackson addressed a conference at the Northwestern University School of Law titled "Dreams Deferred: A Closer Look at School Discipline."