School Discipline Falls Harder on Some Students
By Jason Fuller, Ashley Jones and Rarione Maniece
The phrase “kids will be kids” pardons some misbehavior; however, certain kids seem to get called to the principal’s office a lot more often than others.
Black students were at least three times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled from school, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Nationwide, for example, 15 percent of African-American students received out-of-school suspensions — compared with 4 percent of white students.
The analysis focused on the 2011–12 academic year, the most recent data available from the department’s Office for Civil Rights.
In several states, the disparities were especially wide: Wisconsin suspended 26 percent of its black students but just 3 percent of its white students. In Minnesota, Connecticut, Iowa and Nebraska, African-Americans were six times as likely as whites to be suspended from school.
Virginia’s statistics were similar to the national numbers: 14 percent of the commonwealth’s black students received suspensions, vs. 5 percent of white students.
Expulsions are far less common than suspensions, but the pattern was the same. Nationwide, fewer than two of every 1,000 white students were expelled from school in 2011–12 — compared with five of every 1,000 African-American students.
Again, some states had much bigger disparities. Minnesota, for instance, expelled 11 of every 1,000 black students but only about one of every 1,000 white students. Tennessee expelled 24 of every 1,000 black students but just three of every 1,000 white students. Oklahoma expelled 40 of every 1,000 black students but only six of every 1,000 white students.
In Virginia, about two of every 1,000 African-American students were expelled, vs. one of every 1,000 white students.
Other journalists also have looked at the U.S. Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection. The Center for Public Integrity, for example, focused on the number of students who were arrested at school or referred to police.
The center found that Virginia had the highest rate in the United States for calling police on students: Of every 1,000 students in the commonwealth, almost 16 were arrested or referred to law enforcement in 2011–12, the center reported. Nationwide, the figure was about six of every 1,000 students.
Virginia’s tendency to call the cops on kids has raised alarms with Gov. Terry McAuliffe. In October, at an NAACP conference in Richmond, McAuliffe announced an initiative called “Classrooms not Courtrooms.” He said state officials would work with local school systems to reduce student suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement.
As part of the initiative, the Virginia Department of Education also is seeking to address “the disparate impact these practices have on African-Americans and students with disabilities.” The goal is to disrupt what some educators call the “school-to-prison pipeline” that tags certain students as troublemakers and channels them into the criminal justice system.
During its 2016 session, the General Assembly also considered the issue. Sen. Don McEachin, D-Richmond, sponsored a measure — Senate Bill 458 — to require the Virginia Board of Education to “establish guidelines for alternatives to short-term and long-term suspension for consideration by local school boards. Such alternatives may include positive behavior incentives, mediation, peer-to-peer counseling, community service, and other intervention alternatives.”
The legislation passed the Senate on a 31–9 vote. However, it was defeated in the House, 43–55.
The data show racial disparities for when police get involved with students. In Virginia, for instance, about 25 of every 1,000 African-American students were arrested or referred to police; that compared with 13 of every 1,000 white students.
School districts in Virginia varied considerably in the data on how they discipline students. Greensville County Public Schools, for example, suspended more than half of its students in 2011–12. The Greenville school system suspended 64 percent of its black students, 25 percent of its Hispanic students and 30 percent of its white students.
In contrast, the Prince George County Public Schools did not suspend any students, the data showed.
Some school divisions had large racial disparities regarding suspensions. In Arlington County, for instance, 7 percent of the black students were suspended — but just 1 percent of the white students. And in Bland County, 50 percent of the African-American students got suspensions vs. 8 percent of the white students.
Disparities also were evident in expulsions. In Roanoke, 13 of every 1,000 African-American students were expelled, vs. 1.3 of every 1,000 white students. And in Fairfax County, 5.5 of every 1,000 black students were expelled, compared with 1.3 of every 1,000 white students.
Many advocates of school reforms, as well as parents, have expressed concerns about such patterns.
Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, conducts research on this topic. In the publication “Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice,” he reported that in 2006, more than 3 million students were suspended at least once — about 7 percent of all students enrolled in primary and secondary public schools.
Losen recommended that school districts with high rates of suspensions and expulsions should receive assistance on how to manage students’ classroom behavior.
Evandra Catherine, 32, has a son with a disability enrolled in the Richmond Public Schools. She said she is concerned that her child could be the target of harsh disciplinary practices.
“I am aware of my son’s school district’s financial plight when it comes to managing normal students,” Catherine said. “So I have to be extra vigilant of his treatment because of the lack of resources in play which may recommend discipline instead of accommodating him.”
One possible solution is to apply school discipline on a case-by-case basis. That is what Dr. Russell Houck, executive director of student services for Culpeper County Public Schools, advocates. He believes mild and moderate violations should receive mild and moderate levels of punishment.
“We work really hard to give students help, not punishment,” Houck said. “For kids who have a chronic history of disruption, we have a students’ assistance program where they can receive counseling and stay in school.”
Houck said this framework allows students to stay in school and prevents them from falling behind in class.
“It’s all about finding a different way to discipline them, because discipline in my world means to teach. So we need to find new ways to teach them coping skills in order to get to the root of the problem, both behaviorally and instructionally.”
Where We Got Our Data
The data for this report came from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. We downloaded both the state-by-state data and the data for each school district in Virginia. Then, using Microsoft Excel, we calculated disciplinary rates for students overall and students of different races.
We also examined the data published by the Center for Public Integrity as part of its series “Criminalizing kids.” Our analysis of the civil rights data matched the center’s, thus verifying our methods.
All of the data used in this report has been posted at http://tinyurl.com/cns-school-discipline
A version of this article, with the headline “Disproportionate Suspensions of Black Students Reveal Racism in School Discipline,” was published by the website Truthout.