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Looking beyond the color line

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Scott Phelps, a science teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif., must have known the letter he sent to fellow teachers a month ago would not stay private for long. In it, he lambasted black students for chronic bad behavior.

The rage and debate it ignited when it quickly roared out to the public continues to reverberate through public and academic circles. Here was a white teacher who openly trampled racial and political correctness and said black students fail not because of poverty, racism, indifferent administrators, inexperienced teachers, or cash-starved schools, but because of what Mr. Phelps terms social deficiencies.

Because the term is so vague, we're left to fill in the blanks: high father absenteeism, supposed disdainful attitudes toward learning, antiauthority rebellions, a propensity to be involved in criminal behavior, etc.

Phelps was slammed as a racist, a bigot, and his letter ripped as hateful and racially divisive. But is Phelps right?

In its latest report on school discipline, the US Department of Education found blacks comprise nearly 30 percent of students kicked out of the nation's public schools, yet they make up less than 20 percent of the student population. Though few teachers and administrators - white or black - would dare publicly brand black students as educational malcontents, legions have long contended that they're more prone to pick fights, deal drugs, or pack guns at schools than their white counterparts.


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