School Climate & Safety

Black Students Bear Uneven Brunt of Discipline, Data Show

Disparity in school arrest rates rose
By Evie Blad & Corey Mitchell — May 01, 2018 6 min read

Black students continue to be disciplined at school at disproportionate rates when compared to their peers, even as U.S. schools issue fewer suspensions, new federal civil rights data show.

Those findings come after years of emphasis at the local, state, and federal levels on reducing the use of exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions. They also come as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos considers rescinding federal civil rights guidance designed to ensure schools are administering discipline fairly and to rein in disproportionately high discipline rates for black and Hispanic students, as well as for students with disabilities.

Schools suspended 2.7 million students out of school in 2015-16, roughly 100,000 fewer than were suspended in 2013-14. But black boys still made up 25 percent of all students suspended out of school at least once in 2015-16, and black girls accounted for another 14 percent, even though they each only accounted for 8 percent of all students.

“We recognize that the issue impacts black children, period,” said Letha Muhammad, the director of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Education Justice Alliance. The alliance is part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition of civil rights and student groups that favor removing police from schools.

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Muhammad, who is black, said her children “should have the right to go to public schools ... and not be treated differently because of who they are and where they come from.”

Students with disabilities also continued to be disciplined at higher rates than their peers without disabilities. While students with disabilities were 12 percent of overall enrollment, they made up 26 percent of students who received at least one suspension during the 2015-16 school year, an analysis of the data by the U.S. Department of Education found.

Black students and those with disabilities were also overrepresented in school-based arrests, which increased in 2015-16, the data show. Those figures mirror the discipline gaps black students and students with disabilities faced five years ago.

Root Causes

Although many policymakers and civil rights groups agree the disparities are concerning, they disagree about the root cause and whether federal oversight is required to fix it. Some conservative organizations that have urged DeVos to scrap the federal discipline guidance have said some students may be more likely to misbehave because of out-of-school factors, such as the effects of poverty, that are more likely to affect students of color.

Enlarge chart.

Civil rights groups argue that school discipline policies are often meted out unfairly, even if they weren’t written with discriminatory intent. They say teachers’ implicit biases can cause them to more severely judge the behaviors of black children. And vaguely worded rules against broad offenses like “defiance” are open to subjective application, they argue.

Civil rights advocates said that the new federal data should come as no surprise.

“Schools are places where there’s tremendous amounts of discretion with regard to when to call law enforcement. As a result, we end up with folks who fear black kids, who fear for their physical safety, fear that they can’t control their class, or quite frankly, contempt [for black children],” said Phillip Atiba Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

“Anytime you have high levels of fear and high levels of discretion, you’re going to end up with high levels of disparity.”

Nationally, black students made up 15 percent of all public school students in 2015-16 but 31 percent of those arrested or referred to police—a disparity that has grown by 5 percentage points since 2013-14.

In the same vein, students with disabilities represented 12 percent of the overall student enrollment and 28 percent of students who were arrested at school or referred to law enforcement in 2015-16.

“The consequence is that if you have a physical or mental disability, you are much more likely to be referred for discipline ... and to have your life and career trajectory further curtailed by what should be” a system that focuses on their education, Goff said.

Widespread and Persistent

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, which relied on a previous set of federal civil rights data, found that racial disparities in school discipline “were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.”

The Obama administration sought to ensure more equitable school discipline in 2014, when it issued civil rights guidance about the subject. Citing previous court rulings, that directive put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

DeVos has met with supporters and critics of the guidance as she weighs whether to revise or rescind it.

Debate Over Police in Schools

Conversations about discipline have become intertwined with safety debates since a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 people in February. Some conservative lawmakers, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have questioned if officials in the Broward County district should have disciplined the accused gunman, a former student, more harshly.

In the wake of the Florida attack, some have also suggested increasing police presence in schools.

But an analysis of the civil rights data by Child Trends, a research organization, found that schools with large numbers of African-American students are more likely to have on-site security and law enforcement.

About 54 percent of middle schools and high schools where at least 75 percent of the student body is black had a sworn law enforcement officer or security guard in 2015-16, according to Child Trends. By contrast, such security personnel were found at 42 percent of all high schools and middle schools and at 33 percent of secondary schools where enrollment was at least 75 percent white.

Black secondary students were also more likely than their white peers to attend schools where security personnel outnumbered mental health support personnel, like counselors, the analysis found.

While concerns about school safety are often stirred up after major shooting incidents, federal data show that such events are relatively uncommon. Nearly 240 schools, about 0.2 percent of all those counted in the newest data, reported at least one school-related shooting. Those shootings did not necessarily lead to injuries.

Fifty-five percent of schools reported no serious offenses during the 2015-16 school year, the data show. Serious offenses include physical attacks, threats, sexual assaults, and robberies. About 1.1 million serious incidents were recorded in the new federal data, though serious errors have been reported in some categories. Physical fights without a weapon were the most common offenses reported.

Similar federal data, reported earlier this year, found that student vicimization from such incidents has declined in recent years.

More Analysis

For more detail and in-depth analysis, see Education Week’s additional reporting on this data release:

  • Suspension Rates Higher for Students of Color With Disabilities, Data Show
  • Students of Color Face Persistent Disparities in Access to Advanced STEM Courses
  • Schools ‘Less Safe for Black and Brown Children,’ Civil Rights Advocates Say

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2018 edition of Education Week as Black Students Bear Uneven Brunt of Discipline, Data Show

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