A student reads at a school in New Jersey. One in four black students were suspended in 2009-10, compared to one in fourteen white students. (AP Photo/Jose F. Moreno.)
Punishing Students For Who They Are, Not What They Do
April 17, 2013
Until last month, I had never seen a stop-and-frisk happen. Despite the amount of attention devoted to the controversial New York City policy in the last year, despite the protests, and despite having lived in the city for almost four years, I had never witnessed a stop-and-frisk. And then, a few weeks ago, I watched as two policemen stopped middle-aged black man on 98th Street, and frisked him. I wondered, not for the first time, what it would take for those same policemen to stop and frisk me. Controlling for all other factors—location, time of day, behavior—what would it take for the cops to stop and frisk a pretty white lady on the Upper West Side?
Somewhere in America, there’s a politically aware white high school student asking himself the same question, not about stop-and-frisk, but about school suspension. How much would I have to misbehave to run the same risk of suspension as my black classmates?
If you’re a white middle or high school student, and you don’t have a disability, your odds of being suspended from school are one in fourteen. If you’re a black middle or high school student without a disability, your odds are one in four. According to a new study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, a quarter of black students were suspended in the 2009-2010 school year. A quarter. For students with disabilities, the odds are one in five. And for black girls, the numbers are a stark demonstration of what happens when two forms of discrimination intersect: Black girls are more likely to be suspended than black boys or white girls. And, to the surprise of absolutely no one, when you add a third axis—disability—the figures get even worse. Black girls with disabilities are suspended at a rate sixteen percent higher than white girls with disabilities.
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Schools, under-funded and over-populated, are suspending students for minor infractions like cell phone use or loitering (or for violating dress codes, which are problematic for a host of reasons), and being suspended dramatically increases your chance of dropping out altogether. One Florida study found that a single suspension in ninth grade doubled dropout rates, from sixteen percent to thirty-two percent. And though suspension rates are unnecessarily high, they’re disproportionately high for those students who are already marginalized.
There are ways to bring down the number of suspensions across the board, as the study notes. Changes to codes of conduct, implementing positive behavioral supports, better training and supporting teachers, and implementing principles of restorative justice, are all ways to reduce the number of suspensions. But that reduction in raw numbers will not be enough unless schools also address the disproportionate punishment of minority students.
Punishment rates in schools mirror the rates in the “real world” – though what could be more real than entrenched discrimination in our schools? – and in fact, contribute to those real world figures. The Civil Rights Project report notes that the abuse and misuse of suspensions can turn them into “gateways to prison.” Even if that were not the case, even absent a school-to-prison pipeline, the situation would be grim enough. What this report reveals is a disregard for the wellbeing of marginalized populations that, were it directed at other groups, would never be allowed to stand. If a quarter of white middle school boys were being suspended every school year, and if pretty white ladies were being frisked on the streets of Manhattan, there’d be uproar.
What would it take for the police to stop and frisk a pretty white lady on the Upper West Side? What would it take for a school to suspend a young white man with no disability? These are important – if upsetting – thought experiments. But the real question is, what will it take for us to fix this system that punishes students and citizens for no other reason but their membership in marginalized groups?
HIGH SUSPENSION AND EXPULSION RATES DRIVEN BY INEFFECTIVE SCHOOL POLICIES AND PRACTICES, NOT "BAD KIDS"
Research Collaborative Identifies Promising Initiatives To Address
Discipline Gaps by Race, Gender, Disability and Sexual Orientation
WASHINGTON, D.C., March 13, 2014 - A group of 26 nationally recognized experts from the social science, education and legal fields - assembled three years ago with the backing of two large philanthropies - has compiled and analyzed a huge body of recent research that challenges virtually every notion behind the frequent use of disciplinary policies that remove students from the classroom.
The group, known as the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, found clear evidence that students of color, particularly African-Americans, and students with disabilities are suspended at hugely disproportionate rates compared to white students, perpetuating racial and educational inequality across the country. LGBT students also are over-represented in suspension.
The Collaborative further determined there is no evidence to support the premise that "bad kids" should be removed from the classroom in order to ensure that "good kids" can learn.
"Far from making our schools safer or improving student behavior, the steadily increasing use of suspension and expulsion puts students - especially students of color and other targeted groups - at an increased risk of academic disengagement, dropout and contact with juvenile justice," said Russell J. Skiba, the Collaborative's project director and a professor at Indiana University.
"And we are never going to close the achievement gap until we close this discipline gap," added Daniel J. Losen, a member of the Collaborative and the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. "All schools see a wide range of adolescent misbehavior, but school responses vary dramatically. Some schools see an educational mission in teaching appropriate behavior and are successful at improving behavior without resorting to suspension and expulsion."
Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, the Collaborative said more than 3 million students in grades K-12 were suspended during the 2009-10 academic year, reflecting a steady rise since the 1970's when the suspension rate was half that level. According to the Collaborative, the increase has occurred because school leaders either are so overwhelmed with money and testing demands that they gravitate toward what they perceive as "easy" discipline solutions, or else they really believe that their school environment will improve if they can just get rid of trouble-makers.
"Discipline has become a management strategy for schools pressured by financial constraints, high concentrations of struggling students, substantial numbers of transient teachers/long-term substitutes and severe accountability mandates," the Collaborative wrote. But there are promising alternatives that when embraced by school leaders and teachers, can effectively reduce both the need for discipline and its disparate effects, the group added.
Prevention programs that build "trusting, supportive relationships between students and educators" can be applied school-wide to reduce the likelihood of conflict. And when misbehavior does occur, it can be addressed through constructive and equitable "restorative justice" policies that reduce unnecessary discipline. These strategies focus on problem-solving instead of just handing out penalties.
"Student accountability is achieved when students take responsibility for their actions, recognize the impact of their actions on others and offer ways to repair the harm," the experts added.
The Discipline Disparities Collaborative was launched in 2011 through The Equity Project at Indiana University with funding from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations. The Collaborative has met frequently since then around the country to compile and review recent discipline research. It also is funding other researchers to study unexplored aspects of the school discipline problem.
In releasing its findings, the Collaborative published three briefing papers, each addressed to a different audience: policy recommendations for district, state and federal officials; effective discipline alternatives for school personnel, and a description for researchers of recent studies and urgent, unanswered questions that should be addressed. Among the findings:
There is no research support for the theory that schools must be able to remove the "bad" students so the "good" students can learn. "In fact, when schools serving similar populations were compared, those schools with relatively low suspension rates had higher, not lower, test scores."
Disparities in school suspension are worsening, meaning that some students are being pushed out of school more than others. For example, a study published this year found that three out of every four black middle school boys with disabilities in Chicago had received an out-of-school suspension.
Given the extreme differences in suspension rates across different groups, the researchers concluded that unintended teacher bias is a real possibility. "Several studies indicate ... that racial disparities are not sufficiently explained by the theory that black or other minority students are simply misbehaving more."
New longitudinal studies at the state and national levels indicate that suspension is associated with a heightened risk of dropping out of school. Researchers "found that even being suspended out-of-school once was associated with a two-fold increase in the risk of dropout." The increased risk of dropping out, in turn, increases the risk of juvenile delinquency.
There is a dramatic disconnect between educational and juvenile justice systems. Their practices are, at times, even contradictory. For example, in many communities students who have been expelled are by definition violating juvenile delinquency laws and subject to arrest.
Putting police in schools more often than not leads to the criminalization "of what might otherwise be considered adolescent misbehaviors." The best available evidence "suggests that police presence in schools, particularly armed police, should be a very last resort in school discipline strategies."
In addition to the main briefing papers, the Collaborative today published a set of three supporting papers providing research documentation addressing certain key issues:
A focused review of the evidence does not support the commonly held belief that racial disparities in school discipline are due to more serious or severe behavior on the part of black students.
A review is provided of efforts to explore "implicit bias," the subtle and often unconscious beliefs and stereotypes concerning race and difference that may contribute to disparities in school discipline.
A review is provided of common myths regarding the over-representation of students of color in school discipline and the facts that call these common beliefs into question.
Contact: Norman Black
The Hatcher Group