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The Role of Race and Sex in School Discipline

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May 09, 2018 01:04 pm


“Students who are suspended from school lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time, and are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.”

That finding comes from a March 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office—often referred to as the government’s watchdog.

So if the research on the negative effects of school suspensions is so clear, why aren’t more schools reconsidering the practice, especially considering very troubling data indicating that black students, boys, and students with disabilities are disproportionately subject to discipline practices?

In April, new data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) revealed that black male students represented 8 percent of enrolled students, but accounted for 25 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension. The data, released by the U.S. Department of Education, also find that black students made up 15 percent of the students in U.S. public schools, but accounted for 31 percent of the students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested, as shown in the chart below. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

school discipline chart

In addition to disparities based on race, the GAO report identifies several instances where boys are overrepresented among students who received discipline actions. For example, boys represented 70 percent of the students referred to law enforcement, even though they only made up 51 percent of the overall K-12 student population, a difference of 19 percentage points, as shown in the chart below. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

school discipline chart2


The data are new, but the disparities they reveal should not be a surprise.

But why do they occur? In one sentence, the GAO report says, “the issue of who gets disciplined and why is complex.” In the next sentence it cites studies suggesting that “implicit bias—stereotypes or unconscious associations about people—on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behavior differently based on the students’ race and sex.”

In a letter accompanying the report, GAO notes that the “effects of certain discipline events, such as dropping out, can linger throughout an individual’s lifetime and lead to individual and societal costs.”

The letter was addressed to U.S. Representatives Robert C. “Bobby” Scott and Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the House Judiciary Committee, respectively, who jointly requested the report.

The CRDC findings and the GAO report come during a time when U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering whether to revise or revoke guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2014 to “help public elementary and secondary schools administer student discipline in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of race.”

An April 10 article from Education Week notes that DeVos has “not committed to a time frame for making a final decision on the guidance.” The article outlines meetings held by the Education Department and DeVos with “both sides of the hotly debated issue.”

For his part, Scott, who has also met with DeVos on the issue, said the GAO report “shows that students of color suffer harsher discipline for lesser offenses than their white peers and that racial bias is a driver of discipline disparities. Scott added that the report “underscores the need to combat these gross disparities by strengthening, not rescinding, the 2014 Discipline Guidance Package, which recommends specific strategies to reduce the disparities without jeopardizing school safety.”

For a more personal look at how school discipline, when taken too far, can negatively impact the educational trajectory of a student, please watch Gloria’s story.

To learn more about school discipline policies that support a positive school climate, as well as how district and school leaders, teachers, parents, and other members of the school community can help create a positive learning environment in their children’s schools, read “Four Elements for Creating a Positive Learning Environment.”

Photo by of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Jason Amos is vice president of communications at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Discipline, Students of Color

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