School Climate & Safety

Study Adds to Growing Body of Evidence on Race-based Discipline Disparities

By Holly Kurtz — March 13, 2014 3 min read
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In the wake of recent federal guidance calling for schools to alter their approach to student discipline, a new study by a Harvard doctoral student provides evidence of what not to do.

The guidance, issued in January by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, encourages educators to adopt school rules that limit zero-tolerance policies and reduce racial disparities in punishments.

In September of 2007, long before this guidance was issued, a mid-sized urban district of 24,000 students abruptly expanded its secondary school zero-tolerance policy in September 2007.

That decision is the focus of Stephen Hoffman’s study, which appears in the current issue of the peer-refereed journal Educational Policy. Hoffman capitalized on this natural experiment to find that the expansion of the policy worsened the district’s already-serious racial disparities in discipline rates. The study is currently the second most frequently viewed article on the journal’s website.

Ironically, the unnamed district’s leaders said they were expanding zero tolerance because they hoped to make punishments more consistent and, thus, fair. The new approach required (rather than merely permitted) principals to recommend students for expulsion and suspend them for five days when their violations were accompanied by certain “aggravating factors.” Examples of these aggravating factors included “serious bodily injury, significant property damage, arrest for a Class A Misdemeanor or higher, and/or a significant loss of instructional time.” The district also introduced a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy that required principals to suspend students and recommend them for expulsion if they committed three different serious offenses in one school year.

Comparing discipline rates before and after the policy change, Hoffman found that the percentage of black students recommended for expulsion more than doubled from 2.2 percent to 4.5 percent. The white expulsion rate also increased from .3 percent to .5 percent. The Hispanic rate held relatively steady, rising to 1 percent from .8 percent. Although the district was less than a quarter black, three quarters of the students recommended for expulsion were African American.

After the policy took effect, black students missed about 700 additional school days due to suspension while the white suspension rate held steady.

What about the oft-heard argument that black students are simply more likely to misbehave and, as a result, “deserve” more suspensions and expulsions? Hoffman responded that this view is simply not supported by research.

“Researchers like Russell Skiba have noted that Black students are punished much harsher for the same infraction than their white peers,” Hoffman said. “So, though the zero-tolerance policy was intended to ‘neutralize’ racial discrepancies in suspension rates, I have found that it has had the opposite effect. And the policy aimed at expellable behaviors did not take into account the ways in which, for relatively minor offenses, the same behavior can result in vastly different consequences--based on race. Whether a student ends up in the principal’s office or not is definitely not ‘racially neutral.’ ”

Nor did the new policy have a deterrent effect for would-be rule breakers. After the district expanded zero tolerance, more students were recommended for expulsion and more black students were suspended.

And, three years after expanding zero tolerance, district leaders were reconsidering their approach and trying to figure out how to better serve expelled students.

The findings are in keeping with those from another set of reports released this week by the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, a group of 26 experts from the fields of social science, education, and civil rights. Their report illustrates the consequences of school discipline policies that suspend or expel African-American students and students with disabilities in disproportionate numbers: They drive up the dropout risks for these already academically vulnerable students and help propel them into the juvenile justice system. Read more about it in this item from Rules For Engagement.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.