Stigma-free consequences

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Kay Hymowitz hasn’t visited Cheltenham High, in the prosperous Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia, since she graduated “in the faraway American Graffiti era,” but a recent brawl there went viral and raised the issue of unsayable truths about the failing high school:

Students described rape threats, stalking, kids sent back to classrooms after menacing teachers or classmates, teachers walking past fighting kids, security guards looking the other way. The problems, students insisted, weren’t limited to the high school; they remembered thuggery in middle and even elementary school, too.

There was no way to chalk up these complaints to adolescent theatrics. A February survey of CHS teachers had already revealed a school that resembled Lord of the Flies. Cursing, yelling students roamed the halls, pushing, shoving, ramming each other into walls, sometimes “accidentally” colliding with teachers. Thirty-six out of 79 teachers surveyed believed that they were unsafe in the hallways, and those who didn’t acknowledged either being big enough to stare down students or practiced at minding their own business. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t do anything,” “Fuck off, crazy old motherfucker,” were some of the choice rejoinders they told of hearing. “If I feel uncomfortable by the language and noise level a student displays,” one teacher wrote, “I can 1) address it and open myself up to insubordination and/or a verbal retaliation for which no consequences will be delivered or I can 2) choose to ignore it which I struggle with ethically because then I feel complicit. It’s a complete ‘no-win,’ and I battle this every day.”

What could not be said out loud was that the problem kids were all black, though the district superintendent did delicately indicate that the school’s trouble is “racialized.” Like many inner suburbs, once predominantly white Cheltenham has become increasingly African-American over the past decades. Back in the day, only about 10 percent of the high school population was black; Reggie Jackson, who graduated two years before me, remains the school’s most famous alum. The large majority of my classmates were the sons and daughters of second-generation Jews who had followed the immigrant dream into Philly’s northern suburbs in the postwar years. (Yoni “Jonathan” Netanyahu, who would die in the 1976 Entebbe raid, graduated the same year as Reggie; his brother Bibi picked up his diploma three years later. Their unflattering view of their coddled American baby boomer classmates is the subject of this blunt 2015 Washington Post article.)

Today, the district is 53 percent black, though the demographics defy easy generalization. Most of those students are the children of a growing black middle class that had moved to Cheltenham for the same reason postwar Jewish families had: its relatively affordable, attractive homes and its highly regarded schools, the holy grail of American house-hunting parents of all races. A number of black parents at the meeting spoke poignantly of the hopes that had brought them to the district. “I moved heaven and earth to make sure my child had a chance,” one voluble mother of a 12-year-old pleaded. “I could have lived in a wonderful house in Philly. No way I’m sending my girl to those schools. I’d rather live in a box and let my kid get a good education.”

Some of Cheltenham’s arrivals are spillovers from nearby North Philadelphia, the city’s immense and long-suffering black ghetto. They have moved into aging apartment complexes on the district’s border, bringing with them the old neighborhood’s broken culture. Forty-five percent of the black children in Cheltenham are born to unmarried mothers; it’s jolting to realize that “illegitimacy,” as it was once called, was almost unheard of at the time my peers were piling into school bleachers to cheer Reggie Jackson. Poverty rates for these kids are well below the national average, but almost 30 percent of single-parent households in Cheltenham are nevertheless in the ranks of the poor or near-poor.

If those households are like the struggling single-parent homes studied by social scientists, then the children are experiencing radically different domestic lives than their middle-class black and white classmates—with few routines, disappearing fathers and stepfathers, and little adult interest in homework, teachers, and discipline. Researchers have repeatedly found that boys growing up in single-mother households are especially prone to “externalizing” behavior like fighting, impulsiveness, rudeness—in other words, precisely the sort of behavior that the community meeting was demanding the administration do something about.

This class and family divide, intertwined as it is with race, is off-limits to polite discussion, leading conversations like the one at the community meeting into a verbal traffic jam of contradictions and dodges. The student council president shed tears over the mayhem in one breath and in the next demanded an end to the black-white achievement gap and adoption of “data-driven solutions” like “restorative justice.” (Unsurprisingly, this popular education fad has yet to be subject to careful study.) The audience retreated to the familiar litany of policy fixes with a long history of uneven or meager results: more black teachers! More counselors! More mentors!

One solution is alternative schools, which would place the small number of students making education impossible for the majority into schools explicitly designed for kids unable to function in ordinary education environments. The February teacher survey showed that the vast majority of instructors supported the approach; several black parents also endorsed it at the meeting. (A white father reviled the idea as stigmatizing.) For three hours, parents and students demanded that the administration impose clear “consequences” for fighting and rudeness. The administrators have their self-contradicting marching orders: stigma-free consequences.


  1. Ross says:

    How about they fund an (appropriately named) Kickstarter to get flaccid, soy-soaked tools like that “white “father”" (yes, needed double quotes) funding to work in the school, walk the halls, see the actual rot. Bonus points to have the “father’s” daily ass-kicking filmed by the kickstarter videographer and shown in endless public loop.

    A month of sass and spit and shoving would clear things up real quick, and there would be a detectable drop in the virtue-signaling at the next community meeting.

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  2. Adar says:

    The general rule among teachers anywhere is that if you see two three-hundred pound black girls fighting it out over a boy don’t try to get between them.

  3. Forty-five percent of the black children in Cheltenham are born to unmarried mothers;… Poverty rates for these kids are well below the national average, but almost 30 percent of single-parent households in Cheltenham are nevertheless in the ranks of the poor or near-poor.

    Can someone parse this for me? Is it 30% of the 45%? The official poverty rate is 13.5 percent, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 estimates. Isn’t 30% more than double 13.5%?

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