Black Students More Likely To Be Disciplined, Seattle Study Shows

By Sheppard Ranbom — March 21, 1984 5 min read
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A statistical analysis of disciplinary actions in the Seattle Public Schools scheduled to be released this week indicates that a significantly disproportionate number of black students receive long- and short-term suspensions, expulsions, and corporal punishment every year.

Although blacks made up about 23 percent of the Seattle school population during the 1982-83 school year, about 50 percent of the students required to stay away from school for five days or more were black. And blacks received 46 percent of the short-term suspensions, 55 percent of the expulsions, and 44 percent of the corporal punishment imposed by teachers and administrators, according to the statistical report prepared by the school district.

By contrast, for that same year, white students, who made up 51 percent of the district’s enrollment, received between 30 and 40 percent of disciplinary actions. Whites received 34 percent of the long-term suspensions, 38 percent of the short-term suspensions, 30 percent of the expulsions, and 38 percent of the corporal punishment, the report shows.

Problem of City Schools

Seattle is not the only district in which blacks are disciplined at a disproportionate rate, experts on school discipline say. Nationwide, data indicate that blacks are still “far more likely” to be disciplined for “subjective offenses such as misbehavior” than whites, according to Paul V. Smith, director of research for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.

He cited 1980 data from a survey by the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights that indicates that black students are “roughly twice as likely to be suspended and two times as likely to be corporally punished as white students.”

(The civil-rights office is in the process of completing a 1982 discipline study that should be released soon, according to a spokesman.)

According to Paul Weckstein, Washington director of the Center for Law and Education, a nonprofit group that provides legal assistance for low-income parents and students, a large majority of cities have the problem; and a number of law suits on the issue have been filed in the past decade.

In a 1974 Dallas case, for example, a federal judge ruled in a suit filed by parents against the school district that the disciplinary discrepancies there were based on “individual and institutional racism,” according to Mr. Weckstein. The court ordered the school system to devise a remedy, but it did not lead to substantial improvement, Mr. Weckstein said.

Instead of returning to the district court for relief, the parents took their complaint to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in conjunction with a pending desegregation suit. That court, Mr. Weckstein said, “ignored the findings of the district court and held that the parents had not proved discrimination.”

Situation Stabilized

Seattle’s three-year discipline study indicates that percentages of blacks expelled from school or receiving corporal punishment may be beginning to stabilize as the result of a new discipline code that was instituted last year.

Among other stipulations, the discipline code requires conferences before suspensions and calls for punishments that reflect the severity of offenses; it also includes provisions for due process, according to Nicholas G. Stayrook, director of instructional analysis for the Seattle School District.

In 1980-81, 41 percent of Seattle students receiving corporal punishment were black; that figure rose to 51.6 percent in 1981-82 but was cut to 44 percent in 1982-83, the year the code was first used.

But even with the new measures, the percentages of blacks receiving long-term and short-term suspensions--about 41 percent for both categories in 1980-81--have continued to rise steadily, the study shows.

“Last year was only the first year we followed the new discipline policies; teachers and administrators are still getting used to them,” Mr. Stayrook said. Prior to the adoption of the discipline policies, he said, discipline was “differentially enforced at different schools.”

Seattle has not been subject to any legal actions by black parents because it has adopted a fair code and has followed it closely, Mr. Stayrook said. But other districts have been brought to court by irate parents to rectify the discrepencies in treatment of students.

Experts who monitor school discipline around the country say that the situation nationwide is not improving significantly. The reason for slow progress is that disciplinary actions are often based on subjective criteria, they say. To eliminate actions that discriminate against any group, they point out, would require programs aimed at changing the attitudes of teachers and limiting disciplinary referrals.

Differences in Behavior

According to Junious Williams, a consultant to the Seattle School District and a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Fresno, researchers generally cite two causes for discrimination against blacks in disciplinary matters.

“Some point toward differences in treatment on part of school staff,” he said. “Others believe that there are behavioral differences.” The latter group, he said, argues that minorities, particularly blacks, often “run afoul of the rules” and therefore require disciplinary actions more frequently.

He found that most of the discipline problems involving black males involves “friction offenses"--conflicts caused by differences in values, style, and culture.

These differences include ways of speaking, walking, and acting, along with a difference in definitions of respect and who is due respect.

School districts “need to determine the relative weight of causal factors, identify which things fall into which categories,” Mr. Williams said. “If there is difference in treatment, where does it occur, and if there are behavior differences resulting from the history and culture of black people, what can be done about how schools deal with them?”

Mr. Smith of the Children’s Defense Fund said he has studied “who is suspended and why” since the mid-1970’s. He said that the research has found that apart from absenteeism, a high proportion of suspensions are often the punishment for numerous “subjective offenses” that are determined largely by on-the-spot judgments made by teachers and administrators.

One district in New England goes so far as to have a policy to discipline students for “insolence not by word but by look,” according to Mr. Smith. He said that although such a policy is unwritten and unspoken in other places, the practice is common.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1984 edition of Education Week as Black Students More Likely To Be Disciplined, Seattle Study Shows


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