Corrected: An earlier version of this Commentary misstated the percentage of black students receiving out-of-school suspensions. Of all out-of-school suspensions of preschool-age children, 42 percent were given to black children.
Recent events in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, and New York City have ignited a series of debates about the lives of black males in the United States and how they are viewed in the larger society. Regardless of what anyone believes, however, the reality is simple: Black males are disciplined and punished disproportionately more than any other group.
The historical narrative often depicts black males as violent, anti-intellectual, and resistant to authority. What needs to be understood, however, is how schools contribute to building this narrative, and what can be done to help change that. In many ways, young black men have a much lower threshold for engaging in inappropriate behavior while at school than their peers; overwhelming data show that black male students experience school in a very different way than do their nonblack peers.
The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights reported in 2014 that of all out-of-school suspensions of preschool-age children, 42 percent were given to black children, compared with 28 percent given to their white peers. The department also found that black males are three times more likely than their white male peers to be suspended and expelled, resulting in the loss of valuable learning time. Moreover, it is not uncommon, as data from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Schott Foundation have shown, for districts with small percentages of black males to report that this group still represents a majority of students being disciplined.
A study released in February by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project identified, based on a statistical analysis of school districts nationwide, the most egregious records for unequal school discipline. Researchers discovered that states such as Mississippi, South Carolina, and Delaware, have strikingly disparate racial breakdowns in disciplinary actions.
The report cited in particular the state of Missouri, where unrest over a police shooting of a young black man continues to unfold. The data show that, statewide, Missouri elementary schools suspended more than 14 percent of their black students at least once in 2011-12, compared with only 1.8 percent of their white students. More specifically, the analysis indicated that the Normandy school district, where Ferguson shooting victim Michael Brown attended school, is one of the highest-suspending districts in the nation, with the overall suspension rate of black students close to 50 percent.
Nearly two decades ago, responding in part to the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and other locations across the country, school officials adopted so-called zero-tolerance policies around student behavior. The idea was that instances of disruptive behavior, violence, and possession of weapons on school campuses would automatically result in harsh and serious punishment.
Now is the time for school personnel to enter the conversation to create more equitable and just learning environments for all students.”
This single policy opened the gateway for a grossly disproportionate number of young black males to be punished and subsequently excluded from schools. In time, infractions such as talking back, disrupting class, wearing hats, or listening to music on earphones could be cause for suspension or expulsion. The practice in many districts became one of punishing defiance, not delinquency, which led to arrests and students’ missing more time from school. More serious infractions, such as fighting, could lead to students’ being referred to local justice systems, including children as young as age 10. Minor infractions, which could and should be handled by school officials, began to result in the involvement of local police, the arrest of minors, and the filing of criminal charges.
Not surprisingly, the effects of school arrests can be debilitating for a lifetime. A University of Chicago study revealed that high school students with one school arrest had a 26 percent graduation rate, compared with their non-arrested peers’ rate of 64 percent. The consequences of a lifetime with no high school diploma and a criminal record are clear, so how should schools, parents, and caregivers respond?
For school officials, the task is complicated, yet critical. Many districts are taking a closer look at disciplinary data to examine the race and gender breakdown of school suspensions and expulsions. In Delaware, for example, district officials are taking a close look at school-by-school data, and drilling down further to look at specific teachers who have persistent records of referring students. The goal is not to point fingers, but to identify which teachers disproportionately export and expel those they deem to be “problem students.” It is essential to help these teachers acquire the necessary skills and strategies to respond appropriately and in good measure to disruptive students.
An additional approach that districts can take is to adopt more restorative-justice practices, wherein students are not quickly punished and expelled, but allowed to reflect on their behavior and respond to their misconduct, with the goal of repairing harm done and restoring relationships among those affected. This more caring and just approach offers a humane response that can shrink the school-to-incarceration pipeline that has become increasingly commonplace in many cities and states.
My own research with teachers of black and Latino young men and boys shows that the development and maintenance of authentic, caring relationships with students can help dramatically reduce disciplinary infractions. Perhaps most important, districts could benefit from having an open dialogue and professional development focused on persistent school discipline issues and the racial ramifications involved. These conversations cannot be superficial, but must include discussion of implicit bias, racial micro-aggressions, schoolwide data on race and discipline, and deep-seated beliefs that many educators may have about black male students. These often-unspoken, sometimes-unconscious beliefs include fear, cultural ignorance, ambivalence, or an outright preference for not teaching young black men and boys.
Last summer’s events in Ferguson and other cities led to much national reflection, analysis, and conversation about the value of black lives. The tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Ezell Ford have opened the door to a painful examination of ourselves, our attitudes, and our actions—one that has been long overdue, yet desperately needed. An important part of it must be about race, gender, punishment, and discipline. Now is the time for school personnel to enter the conversation to create more equitable and just learning environments for all students.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2015 edition of Education Week as Decriminalizing School Discipline: Why Black Males Matter