Published Online: October 5, 2011
Includes correction(s): September 27, 2012

Study Finds Minority Students Get Harsher Punishments

Black and Hispanic students are far more likely to be kicked out of school when they break the rules, including some that often have nothing to do with keeping students safe, according to a new report from a civil rights research and advocacy group.

And school discipline records are too often seen as a measure of how safe a school is and not often enough as a gauge of how healthy a school is academically, said Daniel J. Losen, the report’s author and the senior education law and policy associate at the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles. But he said there is no evidence that banishing some students will improve the education of classmates still in school, while studies have show that punishing students increases their risk of dropping out.

The report, released today in Washington, is the latest in a series of actions intended to draw attention to school discipline practices that some consider overly harsh or punishments that are meted out disproportionately among students of different races, genders, and ethnic groups.

In his report, “Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice,” Mr. Losen argues that the students who miss class time for misbehavior are at a greater risk of missing out on educational opportunities, but schools only reluctantly turn to alternatives for managing students’ behavior. The report was published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, in Boulder.

Racial Impact of the Rising Use of Suspension

Data from several states suggests that both school suspensions and racial disparities have grown since the 1970s.

Analyzing 2006 dataRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, Mr. Losen found that more than 28 percent of African-American middle school boys had been suspended at least once, compared with 10 percent of white males nationwide. For girls, it was 18 percent of black students, compared with 4 percent of white students.

“The massive increase in the use of suspension out of school, which is a really important indicator of whether or not a kid’s going to drop out, is something a school can control,” he said.

Minor Violations

In some cases, Mr. Losen said, expulsions or suspensions are necessary, or required by law, such as when a student brings a gun to school. But many suspensions are for far less serious rule-breaking. He points out that the 2006 data from the Education Department’s civil rights office found that 3.25 million students, or 7 percent of those in K-12 schools at the time, had been suspended at least once. Only about 102,000 were expelled, however.

“When people hear ‘suspension,’ they think the kid must have done something pretty bad. Most of these are for minor violations,” Mr. Losen said.

Wanda Parker of Greenville, Mississippi, said her son James was suspended from school after a teacher thought he was using a cell phone in class. In reality, Ms. Parker said, James, a 9th grader at the time, was holding a classmate's iPod. Unable to convince the school James didn't have a cell phone, his parents watched as James served a 45-day suspension from school. He wound up in summer school to pass the classes he needed to become a sophomore this school year.

"These zero-tolerance policies are not fair," Ms. Parker said Wednesday. "They dehumanize our schools and make them feel more like a prison than a home."

A review of data from North Carolina from the 2008-09 school year found that, for possessing or using a cellphone at school, almost 33 percent of first-time black middle school offenders were suspended, compared with 14.5 percent of white students. For dress-code violations, 38.3 percent of black students for whom it was a first-time offense were suspended, vs. 16.6 percent of white students.

A dress-code violation may involve a student wearing colors affiliated with a gang, but kicking a student out of school could make the problem worse, he said.

“You’re afraid about gang affiliations, and you’ve just increased the chances of gang affiliation,” Mr. Losen said.

The reasons for such wide disparity in the punishment of white and minority students are unclear, he said.

Research suggests that unconscious bias likely plays a part in the disparities, Mr. Losen said. “Why else would we see, for the same first-time offense, blacks receiving harsh punishments far more often than whites?”

He said raising awareness about the disparities is crucial, and training in multicultural competence should be combined with training in classroom-management and strategies such as positive behavioral interventions and supports. This intervention-and-supports model is a decisionmaking framework that guides the selection, integration, and implementation of evidence-based interventions for improving academic and behavior outcomes for all students.

Using that framework allows for the tracking of student-discipline data by race or ethnicity, he said, “but too few schools have elected to look at that information. That should be a requirement.”

Compounding that problem is that many minority students have teachers with less experience. The Education Department recently shared data showing that in schools across the country where 20 percent to 80 percent of students are black or Hispanic, their teachers are paid significantly less than the average teacher in the districts.

Related Blog

“Children who need the most too often get the least. It’s a civil rights issue, an economic security issue, and a moral issue,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the time.

Trading suspension and expulsion for other types of discipline doesn’t mean a school is trading control for chaos, Mr. Losen said.

The Baltimore district famously cut its suspensions in recent years, and in turn, the dropout rate decreased. The school system used a series of methods and collaborated with the police department to make changes in how students are disciplined, in addition to stepping up efforts to coax chronically absent students and dropouts back into the classroom.

In that district, and the school district in Clayton County, Ga., which also dramatically reformed the way students are disciplined, the changes didn't cost money, said County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske. "It's about system reform. We just had to take what we had and do it differently," he said. Referrals from school police officers to his court have dropped significantly over the last few years, and that's left more resources on his end to deal with juveniles who have committed serious crimes.

He said students are more inclined to share information about potential incidents than they ever did in the past, when a school police officer was someone to be feared. And there's been another side effect with fewer students being suspended: The district's graduation rate is up.

"Who would ever think that keeping kids in school would increase graduation rates?," he said.

Growing Chorus

Recently, other groups have also taken steps to try to reform school discipline policies that rely heavily on suspensions and expulsions, their unequal application from school to school and among students of different races and backgrounds, their connection to dropping out of school, and the overlap between students who are disciplined this way who end up in juvenile or adult prisons. Among some of those recent developments:

• Earlier this year, a Fairfax County, Va., teenager committed suicide, which his family and friends connected to a seven-week suspension he received for his first serious school rule violation. It was at least the second such death in the district. The school board later dialed down the severity of some of the consequences handed down to students who break rules.

Are We Too Strict?

A report released in July casts doubt on whether increased suspensions and expulsions are getting the right results in Texas public schools.

• In July, a study from the Council of State Governments found that more than half of all Texas middle and high school students were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades, but the punishments were applied unevenly between students of different races, abilities, and schools, and students disciplined with those methods were more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school than students who were not punished in the same way.

• The same week, Mr. Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder shared plans to reshape school discipline policies that end up pushing children into the juvenile-justice system for crimes and rule-breaking on campus, keeping them from pursuing an education. Mr. Duncan was building on a speech more than a year earlier in which he noted that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been “dismayed to learn of schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys.”

This latest report’s release coincides with the Dignity In Schools campaign’s National Week of Action on School Pushout, which involves demonstrations in 14 states and the District of Columbia. The group advocates an end to zero-tolerance policies and the use of other methods to discipline students, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports, spokesman Joao Da Silva said.

His group also wants a provision built into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now the No Child Left Behind law, if it is reauthorized. The existing law requires publicly reporting information about drug use and other incidents, but the reporting should be improved, Mr. Da Silva said, and low-performing schools should be encouraged to improve school climate, not just given sanctions based on student performance.

Mr. Losen also recommends that, as Congress works on rewriting the ESEA, the new version of the law should include incentives for schools, districts, and states to support students, teachers, and school leaders to improve classroom and behavior management where there are high rates of suspension and expulsion.

"This is a myth busted, that we have to kick out the 'bad' kids," Mr. Losen said. "This is an unsound educational practice. The idea that we're going to scare them straight is not working."

Vol. 31, Issue 07

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story gave incorrect suspension rates for white students in North Carolina middle schools in 2008-09. The correct numbers are: 14.5 percent for cell phone violations; 16.6 percent for dress code offenses; 24 percent for disruptive behavior; and 14.5 percent for public displays of affection.

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