Two students’ stories illustrate the elusive influence of race on behavior and discipline.
By Chris Henry
Educators, including top officials in Kitsap and North Mason school districts, agree that some groups of students — kids of color, those with learning disabilities and the poor — are disciplined more often and more harshly than the majority white, middle-class students.
What’s not always clear is the interplay among contributing factors that may include family dynamics, the student’s personality, mental health issues, teachers’ bias or a combination of the above.
Clearly educators, students and their parents all have their roles to play. But as these students’ stories show, it’s hard to pinpoint when, where and why behavior starts to go off track.
GOOD BOY, BAD DECISIONS
Cedric Turner was a sophomore at Central Kitsap High School when he was arrested Nov. 11, 2011, for bringing a gun to schools in Central Kitsap and North Kitsap and firing off a round at Raab Park in Poulsbo. No one was injured.
The Turner family, who are black and in the military, felt a culture shock moving to predominantly white Kitsap County, said Lapeachtriss Turner, Cedric’s mom. Cedric felt out of his element after living in more diverse communities, his mother said. A good student, socially adrift, he hooked up with some troublesome kids.
The Raab Park incident stemmed from bullying at school with racial undertones, Lapeachtriss said. Cedric got drawn in trying to defend friends in his racially mixed group. So yes, race was “a huge factor” in his getting kicked out of school, she said.
Cedric is a good boy who made bad decisions, his mother says. She excuses none of her son’s behavior. The family was frustrated, however, by what they describe as uneven support and communication from district administrators before and after the arrest. Central Kitsap School District officials won’t comment on behavior records of individual students.
Cedric’s cause was complicated by an earlier, similar firearms charge in California. In Kitsap County Superior Court, he pleaded guilty to three felony charges, including possession of a dangerous weapon at school.
Expelled from CKHS and on probation, Cedric took classes at the Kitsap Alternative Transition School, where students under court supervision can earn credits while suspended or expelled.
Cedric progressed well, but after several months, he ran away and began skipping school, violating terms of his probation. Taken back into custody, he completed his sentence in the juvenile detention center.
Cedric was sent to live with his grandmother in Georgia. He caught up by taking extra credits, first at an alternative school, later at a regular high school. But when his parents tried to move him to the North Carolina district in which they now live, his felony record dogged him, and officials were reluctant to admit him. The family has worked on an alternative plan for Cedric to complete his high school education.
All he sees, said his mom, are doors closing left and right.
“He did what he did, and he should have been punished. I’m the first one to say that,” Lapeachtriss said. “I just want us to get past all of this and move forward. I don’t want him to get punished for the rest of his life.”
WHAT MAKES TONY TICK?
Statistically, Tony Riojas, 18, has two strikes against him: he has learning disabilities and he is multi-cultured. His father is black, his mother is Mexican, and his stepdad is white.
Tony’s military family lived in ethnically diverse towns before moving to Kitsap County. He spent time with his father in Florida, but says his dad’s neighborhood is “ghetto,” rife with conflict. He prefers Poulsbo where his ethnicity makes him a standout.
“I love being different,” he said. “I’m pretty sure my skin color makes me who I am in Poulsbo. Everybody knows me as the black kid, so if I wasn’t the black kid, who would I be?”
Sociable, smart, athletic, Tony has been in trouble since fifth grade, his angry outbursts landing him in the principal’s office time after time. He’s been arrested twice; charges were dropped both times.
Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tony had a specialized learning plan at North Kitsap High School that required him to follow a behavior “contract.” Therapists also diagnosed “oppositional defiance disorder,” described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as “an ongoing pattern of anger-guided disobedience, hostility, and defiant behavior toward authority figures.” The district, which declined to comment, would not recognize the condition, according to Tony’s mother, Corine Proctor.
Tony thinks race and disability might be factors for some students who get in trouble, but not for him.
“I’ll probably be the only person you will talk to who will admit to just causing trouble,” he said. “I was very hot headed. … Honestly, I didn’t care, ‘cause that was just me.’ Up until 11th grade, I didn’t care about what anybody thought or what anybody did or the consequences of my actions.”
Conflict was the norm. Tony admits using his blackness to intimidate people.
Tony continued getting in trouble on returning from Florida to Poulsbo as a senior.
“I had a past with that school,” he said. “Every little thing I did, if I was late to class they’d write me up.”
This fall, a kid from the high school, a former friend, crossed him.
“I saw him at school one day. I said, ‘Listen, if I see you off campus you will legitimately be dead,’ Tony said. And he meant it.
There was a confrontation in the Dairy Queen parking lot, and the kid reported feeling threatened. The school took it as a credible threat, and because of Tony’s lengthy discipline record, they expelled him.
Tony’s mother and stepfather reached the end of their rope and kicked him out of the house. He ended up couch surfing, wondering what to do next.
Tony has no interest in going back to the high school, but he blew off the options offered by his mom, Corine said.
She thinks she should have drawn a line in the sand years ago.
“I’m tired of this scrub life I’m living. I have no money, no job, no diploma,” Tony said. “I know now if I would have just stayed on the straight and narrow, I’d be done with school and in the Navy, going places, going abroad and having it all.”