You’ll Never Guess Which Region Suspends Black Kids From School Most Often
It’s a problem that echoes the “black codes” of the nation’s Jim Crow era: African American schoolchildren nationwide are up to three times more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled from school.
But a new study shows that things are even worse for black grade-school kids in the South, where they are up to five times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled—an eyebrow-raising disparity experts say is a big factor in the school-to-prison pipeline.
The assessment, made by the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, found that African American students were consistently suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers in each of the 3,000 school districts in the 13-state region. The pattern held steady for black boys and girls even when they were a substantial minority of the district’s population and regardless of whether they attended school in an affluent suburban or a poor urban district.
“We weren’t necessarily surprised” that African American students were disciplined more frequently, said Edward Smith, who coauthored the study with Shaun Harper. Several national studies, he said, have determined that schools expel and punish black students at higher rates than they do their white peers, a lingering effect of Jim Crow and racial prejudice.
The unexpected finding of the study, Smith said, was that unequal punishment of black students “happens in places that are dissimilar from each other”—in rich and poor districts, as well as ones that are predominantly black or majority white. “There’s no unique profile or demographic composition,” said Smith, that would indicate a school is more likely to suspend or expel blacks more often than whites. “If anything, we wanted to kind of showcase the variants,” he said.
The disparities in punishment were most significant in Mississippi, where 50 percent of the students are black, but black students accounted for 74 percent of suspensions and 72 percent of expulsions. Things aren’t much better in neighboring Louisiana, where 45 percent of the students are black; 67 percent of suspensions and 72 percent of expulsions there are of black students.
At the same time, according to the study, in 181 individual school districts and 84 individual districts, all of the students who were punished by expulsion and suspension—100 percent—were black.
“The numbers we see are staggering,” said Kaitlin Banner, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a civil rights group. Banner is part of the organization’s Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track program, targeting zero-tolerance discipline programs that lead students to contact with the criminal justice system.
The data speaks not only to “a real history and legacy of discrimination” that still lingers in the South, along with modern perceptual biases that lead educators to see African American students more negatively than whites for the same behaviors. “What’s different is the adult reaction to the behavior,” said Banner.
“We do think that much of what we see is from Jim Crow–era policies, practices, and discrimination,” Smith said. “However, the uptick and the scaling of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies have been shown to change the quality and the nature of out-of-school discipline,” and the result leads to harsher punishment of African American kids.
Smith and Banner agreed that unequal punishment of black and white students is a factor in the school-to-prison pipeline and deprives black children of a quality education, a key to closing the stubborn achievement gap. Solutions are in reach, they said, starting with giving rich and poor schools equal resources and teaching educators about implicit racial biases.
“There’s a lack of professional development at schools of education and other sites in which teachers and school leaders are credentialed and certified with respect to behavior and classroom management,” Smith said. Most discipline problems “arise in exchanges that are intense and in exchanges in classrooms that are not supportive.”
“Every child should have the opportunity to be a child,” and most kids make mistakes, Banner said. But “mistakes should not prevent a kid from getting an education.”