The basic narrative goes like this. A 14 year-old girl, a ninth grader, was caught bringing whiskey disguised in water bottles on a school trip, one bottle for her and one for another student. The violation of policy was defined as a “Level IV” infraction, whatever that is supposed to mean. The corresponding consequence is an expulsion for the rest of this year and, if conditions are not met, all of the student’s sophomore year, as well. I emphasize the conditions because the news stories are headlining the penalty as a three-semester expulsion and downplaying the conditional re-entry, which would happen over the summer, resulting in an expulsion lasting the rest of this school year only.
Let me be clear about a few things. One, I believe true zero tolerance policies in schools are a terrible thing, which ought to be reevaluated and probably junked, along with the punitive culture we have allowed to become the framework for all discipline and corrections (ie laws requiring mandatory minimum prison sentences and such). There is no place in MMSD for an approach modeled on any such philosophy, nor in any corrections or justice system.
Two, I am friendly with the attorney for the family of the girl, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, and can testify to his good character. If I needed legal representation or counsel, especially in relation to the City, MMSD, or on a civil rights issue, he would be on my short list of options. So my reading of this whole situation ought not be taken as any kind of personal attack on either Jeff or the family he is serving.
But I wish to enlarge the scale of the conversation, to situate this one story in the context of what has been a city-wide conversation about racial disparities in Madison, particularly as it plays out in MMSD. The public conversation about race (a cyclical phenomenon, some jaded longtime Madisonians tell me) was jump started back in the fall with the release of the Race to Equity report, a document that basically confirms in an avalanche of compiled data all the worst observations one could make about the radically divergent experiences in Dane County of African American people compared to white people.
The academic achievement gap, predictably, shows up as extremely unfavorable to African American students in MMSD. Linked to the academic underperformance is the distressingly high rate of African American students on the receiving end of the MMSD disciplinary process, including in suspensions and expulsions—a trend that has been informally noted for a very long time.
So my problem with this episode receiving all this attention (and even as I write this a social media advocacy movement demanding lenient treatment of the girl) is this: why is all this outrage and motivation to speak out against the policy happening only now? One simple reason, glibly stated and needing to be unpacked for sure, is that the girl and the family caught up in the harshness of the policy are white. So, to unpack: it is not merely or solely a function of skin color, of course. In Madison (more so than in many places, per the Race to Equity report) white is short for a social status benefiting from multiple factors of privilege: possessing the status of the well-educated, having financial resources, residing in comparatively safe neighborhoods, having access to all kinds of informal but very real support (for example, belonging to social media circles inclusive of various influential voices), having an assumed benefit of the doubt granted on the part of authorities, and so forth. In this case, none of those privileges were given much weight when the punishment was determined. To me and my possibly over-sensitive critical instincts, the current and proper outrage directed at the policy is mixed in with an indignation of the truly entitled: No, this policy cannot apply to MY daughter! She is an honor student! (As every report seems to point out.)
In short, few of these outraged parents gave the policy a thought until a white middle class student suffered its consequences. This in itself is a problem.
What bothers me most is this: that the policy was allowed to be adopted and implemented, systematically used by MMSD to discipline students, probably on a daily basis somewhere across the district, but only generated outrage among white parents now—because, in fact, until a first-time rule-breaking ninth-grade white girl got the hammer, that very policy had been serving those same parents by ostensibly protecting the children of those parents from the aggressions, disruptions, and dysfunctions of the black children! Now, here it is, the perfect example to me of that term du jour, white privilege (or should I say, “of the week,” since Madison just happens to be the host site for this year’s White Privilege Conference, being held this very weekend). Meaning, if one is white, the policy serves as I described above, but without requiring any active involvement. Nobody has to raise a hand and say, Yes, protect my kid! Parents of white students could be entirely passive or even skeptical of the policy in the abstract, and still have the effect of the policy be as I described—a mechanism to rid the schools of trouble-making, threatening, out of control students, who, oh, by the way, just happen to be mostly black.
Please consider how the racial politics might be playing out. Knowing that Superintendent Cheatham is very sensitive to achievement gap issues, and in fact has made that problem one of her priority areas, including in the area of disciplinary policy, I think it is entirely possible that she or other MMSD leaders are feeling the pressure to apply disciplinary policies in conspicuously non-discriminatory ways. To avoid the appearance of favoring a class-privileged white student, they may be choosing to go by the policy’s letter instead of the spirit. Which, of course, is no way to correct a disparity. But it would be evidence of the larger context of which I speak.
Also, please consider the benefit of the doubt angle. A black kid caught with enough whiskey for a shared seat party in the back of the bus on a school trip in the ninth grade would likely not only have received the same or worse punishment, but her parents would have been instantly discredited as decent, competent parents. As opposed to this case, in which the parents have all the resources (and again, entitlement) to go on the offensive, effectively shutting down any discussion of why and how a ninth grader would have free and unsupervised access to hard liquor in their home (and the typical follow-ups: does this happen all the time in their home? are they drinking in front of her? do they have drug and alcohol problems?) The stupidity of youth or the oversights of parenting may very well be judged by double standards corresponding to two different social realities—I honestly don’t have a problem with that—but let us at least be honest about it by saying openly that the parents of this girl are reaping the advantages of their social position compared to many others who have none of those things.
So to all the white parents on Facebook getting pissed off about this injustice for the first time (including a number of my personal friends and neighbors), I encourage you to take this event as an occasion to demand an overhaul of the policy, yes, but with an attention to the social costs long borne by those living in our city who have far fewer resources to negotiate draconian penalties that in some and maybe even many cases were levied in equally unreasonable fashion. And please be prepared to accept a profound responsibility for creative disciplinary solutions that will truly benefit all students, instead of continuing the complacency that effectively results in the reinforcement of the worst racial disparities in the nation—a complacency that only ends when it is one of yours that gets the rap.