School Climate & Safety

Federal Data Highlight Disparities In Discipline

By Robert C. Johnston — June 21, 2000 6 min read

African-American and Hispanic students continue to be suspended and expelled from public schools at higher rates than their white counterparts, according to new data released last week.

While the annual suspension rate for all students nearly doubled between 1974 and 1998, from 3.7 percent to 6.9 percent, blacks and Hispanics continued to be suspended at higher rates than whites, the federal statistics show.

The largest disparity existed in the suspension rates for black students, who made up about 17 percent of all students in 1998-99, but accounted for 33 percent of all students suspended.

White students made up 63 percent of enrollment and 50 percent of suspensions. The 15 percent Hispanic enrollment made up 14 percent of the suspensions.

The statistics were atop the agenda for civil rights leaders who attended a conference here last week on race and school discipline. In reports and speeches, they argued that focusing on removing disruptive or misbehaving students, rather than on curtailing their bad behavior, leads to more problems for students in the long run.

Much of the criticism was aimed at the “zero tolerance” policies adopted in recent years, which require that students be suspended or expelled for offenses such as bringing a weapon to school.

Focus on Safety

Event organizers kicked off their gathering with a media briefing blocks away from the White House. They called on federal officials, including President Clinton, to take a stronger stand on the discipline gap that exists between some student groups.

“Step up to the plate,” Christopher Edley, Jr., a co-director of Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, which co-sponsored the event, urged federal officials. “It’s too common for policymakers to say that there have always been disparities. Well, it’s getting worse.”

Discipline policies have moved to the front and center of local and national policy debates amid widespread public concerns over school safety.

On the one hand is a desire to deter violence such as the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado last year and other school shootings. On the other is concern over suspensions for seemingly trivial offenses, such as bringing toenail clippers or plastic knives to school. For school leaders, striking a proper balance is often difficult.

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.- based National School Boards Association, said the persistent racial disparities in discipline actions “should cause every school board to re- examine their school discipline policies.”

She cautioned, however, against overreacting to the stories of discipline gone awry. In many such instances, Ms. Bryant said, “what I’ve found was that there were very much two sides to these cases. But the [school] board could not go to the media with the details of the students in the case” because of privacy restrictions.

If last week’s conference was any indication, though, the rhetoric on the issue will likely get more heated.

“We’re not getting equal protection under the law,” declared the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Chicago-based advocacy group that co-sponsored last week’s meeting. “The White House must speak out.”

‘Major Problem’

The new federal data on suspensions and expulsions in public schools were released last week by the Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

In the first- ever federal compilation of nationwide expulsion rates, the data showed that of the roughly 87,000 students expelled in 1997-98, about 31 percent were black, 50 percent were white, and 16 percent were Hispanic.

The numbers did not come as a surprise to many at the conference, but they gave rise to a serious debate about why the gaps exist.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson

“Clearly, this is a major problem, and has been for a long time,” said Raymond Pierce, a deputy assistant secretary for the OCR. “We find inconsistent applications of discipline policies, lack of teacher and administrative training, and lack of a knowledge base by parents and students of policy and due process.”

Some of the gathering’s organizers, however, laid more of the blame for disciplinary gaps on what they characterized as discriminatory policies and attitudes of politicians and some school administrators.

Mr. Jackson argued that the gaps constitute a civil rights issue that is part of similar trends in jail-sentencing and capital-punishment decisions, and he called for a White House-sponsored conference on the issue.

“Expelling and jailing is a Trojan horse for some of the worst racist behavior since slavery,” he said. He went on to charge that teachers’ “racial profiling” of students when responding to behavior and discipline problems helps explain why black students bear the brunt of expulsions.

Not everyone, though, was as quick to agree that racial discrimination in the classroom is behind the discipline gaps.

“It’s not simply race. If it was, minority administrators would get some different results,” said Bruce Hunter, the director of policy for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. “That just doesn’t happen in the aggregate.”

The author Jonathon Kozol, who has written several widely read books on high-poverty schools, was part of the press briefing, and he said that teachers seem to react similarly to disruptive students, regardless of race.

The disparities, he contended, have more to do with research showing that minority students are more likely than whites to have inexperienced teachers, crowded classrooms, and academically unrewarding environments. “It’s easier to lose control when your school has more kids than desks, or the classroom is steaming with heat,” he said.

More Investigations

Organizers of the meeting also presented a report that highlighted examples of how schools vary their discipline policies, and the outcomes for students.

For example, a comparison of Miami-Dade County, Fla., schools found that one middle school suspended just 2.8 percent of its students, compared with 34 percent at another middle school during the 1998-99 school year.

The schools were subject to the same code of conduct and have predominantly low-income black and Hispanic students, according to the report, which was prepared by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and the Advancement Project, a nationwide advocacy group on race and justice.

The report says that students at one school who are involved in a fight are given in-school suspensions or work assignments, such as cleaning the cafeteria.

Meanwhile, students at the other school receive an automatic 10-day out-of-school suspension for fighting— “one of the most drastic measures that may be taken” under the district’s conduct code, the report says.

“Without a change in philosophy, many schools will continue to write off and weed out children, cutting off their educational opportunities,” the report argues.

The report urges the Education Department to conduct more investigations into strict discipline policies and their effects on minority students.

States should also require all schools to report disciplinary actions by race and ethnicity, while school districts should improve and extend classroom-management training for teachers, the report says.

One federal official took issue with the report’s general indictment of zero-tolerance policies, arguing that when used as part of a comprehensive discipline strategy, it is a reasonable approach to making schools safer and more orderly.

“Zero tolerance by itself will be ineffective without early intervention and working with parents,” said William Modzeleski, the director of the Education Department’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. “If you create an environment where kids are engaged and learning, that will drive down the need for expulsions and suspensions.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week as Federal Data Highlight Disparities In Discipline


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