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Unequal Opportunity: Racial Disparities in School Discipline are Growing

Issues with unequal treatment in terms of school discipline have been studied by many scholars, but recent data is showing that disparities in school discipline are growing

Schools are supposed to be places where children can learn, thrive and feel safe, but for some groups of children, the policies in place around discipline may have the opposite effect. As we enter into Black history month, it serves not only as a time for celebration of the many strides and accomplishments of the Black community, but also as a reminder that there is still much work to be done in advancing equality for all, especially when it comes to youth and young adults. The color line can still divide us. One of those areas is in education, specifically the unequal treatment that is given to you of color in terms of school discipline practices. Despite efforts to eradicate this issue, recent data have shown that as we enter into 2019, the gap is widening.

A study from the Government Accountability Office  says that Black students are known to face higher rates of suspension, expulsion and arrest than their white peers. For example, Black students make up about 29% of students enrolled in Charter schools, but 60% of suspensions given during the 2013-14 school year. Federal Civil Rights Investigations found that black students are punished more harshly than white students even when they exhibit similar behaviors. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Black students with disabilities are three times as likely to get suspended or expulsion than their white peers. Black boys face the highest discipline rates than any other demographic and Black girls are six times as likely to be suspended than white girls.

A study conducted by David Ramey of Penn State University and published in the Sociology of Education looked at more than 60,000 schools in 6,000 school districts and found that schools with large minority and poor populations were more likely to infuse, or incorporate into classroom and/or overall school practice, criminal justice disciplinary policies. These policies include the approval of the use of practices such as suspension, expulsion, and arrests. The US Department of Education Civil Rights Data has found consistent disparities over time in terms of school discipline practices. Black students are being criminalized for their behaviors within school which in turn increases the police presence at some of the schools. Furthermore, recent federal data from the Civil Rights Data Collection showed that while overall number of suspensions during the 2015-16 school year had decreased by about 100,000 from the previous year, the number of students being turned over to law enforcement and arrested increased? by about 5,000.

What are some of the reasons for this disparity? The Brown Center, a research center within Brown University Medical School that studies the developmental outcomes of youth, discusses some findings that contribute to racial disparities in education that lead to the disproportionate disciplining. One is that teacher-student mismatch harms black children because non-black teachers sometimes have lower expectations for black students. Additionally, white and black teachers evaluate behavior of black children differently. Research has shown that when a black student is matched with a black teacher, they are less likely to get suspended.

The bottom line as stated in the beginning, is that schools are supposed to be places where children can learn, thrive and feel safe, but for some groups of children, the policies in place around discipline may have the opposite effect. So what can we do as a community to support the youth who fall victim to the unfair disciplinary practices? Continue to study this topic and provide meaningful data that can be used to make a case to policy makers and elected officials that real change needs to occur. Researchers and practitioners can work together to develop interventions that will help mitigate some of the teacher mismatch effects within classrooms. Students should be referred to psychological and behavioral resources to receive support when they are struggling in the classroom. More training is needed for teachers around cultural sensitivity and how to handle a classroom with students who do not share the same identity as themselves . Teachers also need to be equipped with tools to provide alternative forms of discipline outside of suspension such as meditation. There are already some great programs being instituted within schools where instead of suspension or being kicked out of class, students are asked to participate in mindfulness activities. There are also ways to make the classroom a friendlier environment for children from all walks of life. Some schools place medicine balls in the classroom instead of traditional desk chairs to stimulate students. As parents of children within these school systems, we can get involved with parent groups at the school and discuss ways that school administration can make the school a better environment for children. It will take all of us to effect a wide scale change. We must continue the work to ensure that the children of this generation and the ones after are receiving high quality education, fair discipline practices and equal opportunities for success.


Image by Goodluz/AdobeStock

Kendall Johnson is currently studying to obtain her PhD in Social Work at Boston University under the mentorship of Judith Scott (MSW,MPP,PhD). Her research seeks to understand the effects of trauma and community violence, especially homicide, on the Black families’ and communities’ mental health, as well as the supports they utilize in response to traumatic loss and violent events. 

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