National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions


A new series of studies examines disciplinary rates in schools across the nation. Credit: EdSource file

In schools across the nation, African American boys receive harsher penalties than white students for the same offense; there is no evidence that “bad” students need to be removed from class so “good” students can learn; and poverty does not fully explain racial disparities in discipline, according to the findings of a series of reports released Thursday.

The reports are from the Discipline Disparities Research-to-Practice Collaborative, a group of 26 nationally known researchers, educators and policy analysts, including a number of experts from California. The group spent the past three years investigating disciplinary disparities across the nation. The results of the reports were based on a review of numerous research studies on discipline practices in public schools as well as an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data on suspension and expulsion rates for the 2009-10 school year.

Among the findings:

  • There is no evidence that racial disparities in discipline – which occur most frequently for African American boys – are due to higher rates of offenses or more serious misbehavior by those students.
  • Suspensions are most often used for conduct that is not a threat to safety.
  • Middle class African American students are disproportionately suspended compared with middle class white students.
  • Positive relationships among students, teachers and parents are more important than neighborhood crime and poverty at predicting school safety.

Although African American boys are the most likely to be disproportionately suspended or expelled, African American girls, Latino students (at middle and high school levels), Native American students and students with disabilities are also overrepresented in suspensions, the authors said.

Researchers added that there is “emerging evidence” of disproportionate disciplinary practices involving English learners and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, but more studies need to be done.

The authors emphasized the importance of coming to grips with these disparities and slowing the growing reliance on suspensions. Suspensions can lead to lower academic achievement, higher dropout rates and a higher likelihood that students will be arrested and incarcerated, they noted. More than 3 million students in grades K-12 across the nation were suspended during the 2009-10 academic year.

“We are never going to close the achievement gap until we close the disciplinary gap,” said Daniel J. Losen, a member of the collaborative and the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a statement about the findings. “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.”

Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel, a California public interest law firm that has been promoting alternative disciplinary measures, says that she “is thrilled that they put all the research in one place and then did additional research to help move the reforms forward.”

“It’s a civil rights crisis, particularly impacting African American male students,” she added. “We have a moral imperative to intervene and help those young men.”

The authors identify a number of factors that can reduce racial disparity in school disciplinary practices. For example, interventions that improve the quality of academic instruction contribute to lower suspension rates. In addition, schools with more diverse faculty and student bodies have fewer disciplinary issues. Honing in on where disproportionate classroom referrals occur can also make a difference. Higher rates of referral to the principal’s office of African American students “appear to be situational, occurring only in some classrooms.”

The collaborative also examined whether unintended teacher or administrator bias is possibly playing a role. Although there is no research supporting that possibility, studies have shown that people in general have implicit biases without realizing it, and that students are often punished for what officials believe to be their “potential” to be dangerous.

Johanna Wald, director of strategic planning at Harvard Law School’s Institute for Race & Justice, said in one of the briefs that “de-biasing strategies” can help reduce racial disparities in school discipline.

“The positive news is that unconscious stereotypes are not set in stone,” she said. Bias, like habits, can be broken, she said.

The best candidates for change are people “who monitor their own reactions and behavior in an effort to root out stereotypes and feelings of which they don’t approve,” Wald said. “Certainly many teachers, school administrators, and school resource officers fall into this category.”

The growing use of restorative justice in schools may help in these efforts because it increases opportunities for positive contact between races and helps teachers and administrators see students as individuals rather than members of a particular race, she said.

One of the findings of the collaborative – that disparities are most pronounced for subjective offenses, such as insubordination or defiance – is being addressed in Assembly Bill 420, introduced by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and supported by Faer.

The bill would limit the use of “willful defiance” as a reason to suspend or expel students.

This set of studies, Faer said, “will help convince people around the state that alternatives work and the current system does not work.”

Susan Frey covers expanded learning time. Contact her. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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28 Responses to “National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions”

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  1. el on Mar 20, 2014 at 9:07 am03/20/2014 9:07 am

    • 000

    This is tangential, but because we don’t have an open thread, I’ll bring it here:

    It’s the story of an undercover drug sting operation in Temecula that appears to have actively targeted special ed kids to find drugs for the deputy.

    This is from the Rolling Stone article:

    Reflecting on his experience as the target of an undercover drug sting, Jesse still doesn’t know quite what to make of it. “They were actually out to get us,” Jesse says, sounding mystified as he swigs a protein shake; because of his PTSD, he still sometimes finds himself unable to eat and wants to regain some of the weight he’s lost. He managed to graduate this past December and has started a job in construction. In the meantime, he has gleaned a few important lessons from the ordeal: “To not trust everyone you see,” he says thoughtfully. Through his friend’s harsh betrayal, he has come to understand that people aren’t always what they appear to be, a cruel but necessary lesson that all children must learn sometime. He has realized that even adults are capable of acting with terrible unkindness and duplicity. Jesse’s insights have made him wary of meeting new people, fearful of hidden motives, which, as he now knows, his disabilities make him powerless to detect. And Jesse learned one more valuable lesson.

    “I mean, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, they taught me how to buy pot,” he says, and breaks into a grin.

    Why this is on topic is because I think sometimes discipline is meted out without a lot of thought for the root of the word, to train. I don’t want to take away the tool of suspension from schools when they need it, but I also cannot think of any instance where a suspension itself actually improves the behavior or corrects a problem student. It’s true my imagination and experience is limited, but we clearly do need better tools that both protect the classroom of kids who want to learn while also educating and developing the kids who can’t find their way in a classroom.

    And finally, I think we always need to consider whether the adults are at fault. There is no question that some adults bring out the worst in some kids, and part of the question should always be whether the problem can be solved by surrounding that kid with different adults – ie, different teacher, different in-school suspension strategy, etc.

  2. Floyd Thursby on Mar 19, 2014 at 1:32 pm03/19/2014 1:32 pm

    • 000

    Navigio, yes you can. If one group is giving their best effort and one is intentionally being disruptive, you choose the former. They will in the work world. The latter will be fired.

    The best students may be an engineer, may cure cancer, may develop new technology, the students yelling and screaming are showing they don’t care and at best will be on minimum wage. You get more bang for your buck helping the best. They may create enough jobs thate even disrespectful jerks can have a job doing something once they calm down. You definitely favor the well-behaved over the poorly behaved.


    • navigio on Mar 20, 2014 at 6:35 am03/20/2014 6:35 am

      • 000

      Disagree. It’s not a public system’s role to exclude part of the public.

  3. Brett on Mar 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm03/15/2014 9:51 pm

    • 000

    Getting killed in the classroom. Thank you for commentary by those who get it. While everyone plays soft, and tries tolerance to the hilt without deep supports, the students run the show with impunity.

  4. Don on Mar 15, 2014 at 4:41 pm03/15/2014 4:41 pm

    • 000

    I don’t have a moral dilemma in disciplining my children. I would have one by not disciplining them. I’m in agreement with Paul that without a workable solution, it’s pointless to remove the current imperfect ones.


    • navigio on Mar 20, 2014 at 4:55 pm03/20/2014 4:55 pm

      • 000

      the dilemma was not about how to discipline (nor was it about your children), rather it was about how to exclude people from so-called ‘public’ education. actively denying someone the opportunity for an education is a moral issue, at least to me.

  5. Don on Mar 15, 2014 at 2:27 pm03/15/2014 2:27 pm

    • 000

    All the philosophizing aside, what does a teacher do when there are students who are yelling and screaming in the classroom? s/he’s trying to impart some lesson to the students and one or more students are making that impossible. Tell me.

    I know that public school is there for everyone and that removing students is not consistent with their getting an education, but it is also true that not removing them is inconsistent with getting an education as concerns the rest of the class.


    • navigio on Mar 15, 2014 at 4:19 pm03/15/2014 4:19 pm

      • 000

      its a moral dilemma. deny one group or deny another. neither can be justified on its face. but realize we are squaring off over an issue that has been manufactured. we are merely pawns in someone else’s game:

      After President Clinton was elected in the early 1990s, Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (1993-97), asked H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Education Bill Bennett to support legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. “I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.”

      A parcel tax in our own community that would have been the cost of a family dinner once a year failed because people wanted to ‘coerce’ the public school district into a different type of behavior regarding transparency and accountability. If those district leaders dont act the way WE want them to, we will deny our own community’s children libraries. ahem.

  6. Andrew on Mar 15, 2014 at 6:30 am03/15/2014 6:30 am

    • 000

    Time to break out the popcorn popper, pop some corn, and watch the entertaining spectacles that ensue from the “study.”

    So the plaintiffs in Vergara vs. California are indeed right as the study proves? Because the study proves that teachers assigned to disadvantaged schools are indeed racists and the problems are not with the equally well-behaved students but with the unfair, racist and indeed “bad” teachers who are kept in their abusive racist roles only by tenure. Do we abolish tenure and replace these geriatric racists with new, young, fair non-racist teachers? Or do we send the tenured teachers to Mao type re-education camps so that we can purge their souls of their now scientifically proven racism?

    Funny, I’d viewed the majority of teachers, including CTA rank and file, as fair, highly conscientious, intelligent, and unbiased. But their own scientific educational study now apparently proves otherwise.


    • navigio on Mar 15, 2014 at 11:31 am03/15/2014 11:31 am

      • 000

      nice try. 😉

      its possible to be discriminatory without even knowing it. read some pedro noguera for a good take on how that can happen. note also that teachers are not the sole positions in schools/districts.

      its also important to realize these issues are a reflection of much broader societal problems. i take ‘studies’ like this as a statement about everything that contributes to the problem. the point is to highlight a problem so it can be addressed not to use the problem to try to assign politically motivated ‘blame’. :-)

  7. Don on Mar 14, 2014 at 3:55 pm03/14/2014 3:55 pm

    • 000

    Even if the findings are valid, that doesn’t diminish the fact that behavioral problems exist and that such problems have consequences for classroom instruction and student learning. Keeping students in the classroom may increase those problems, whether or not discipline is meted out with prejudice. Where are the studies on those effects on other students?

    Ms. Frey, are you aware of any such studies? If they exist don’t you think they too are an important part of the picture considering the number of students in the classroom who may be adversely affected by the behavioral issues of classmates? And if data doesn’t exist, why not? Could that not in itself demonstrate an omission in the general study of this issue as it affects all interested parties?

    I noticed that not one of the four key points you listed mentioned the fallout from unruly behavior. In fact, it isn’t mentioned at all in this straightforward reporting on the research findings since, I presume, it is not part of the study. The question I have is why not? Isn’t the whole purpose of reducing suspensions to increase student achievement? What I’m getting at is this: it seems to me that you ought to have written a more balanced article that did not present only one side of the issue. As with so much of the media, often it is what’s not said that sticks out like a sore thumb.

  8. Don on Mar 14, 2014 at 10:52 am03/14/2014 10:52 am

    • 000

    I have two boys in public schools in San Francisco, one in high school, one in middle. The high schooler goes to Lowell, an academics-based merit school and he reports no discipline problems. Last week I attended classes as “student for a day”. There were in fact no discipline problems whatsoever.

    My other son attends a highly diverse middle school and he complains daily about the level of disruption in the classrooms by unruly students. As a child with ADHD my son struggles to concentrate under those circumstances. The school utilizes restorative practices which, in effect, means that unruly students are rarely removed from the classroom or suspended. When I ask my son if things have gotten any better since the beginning of school in August he says no and that if anything they have worsened.

    So, Ms. Frey, when a study group releases findings that are counterintuitive to what students and their parents experience on a daily basis, excuse me if I’m a bit skeptical. I’m not implying that black makes don’t experience bias in school disciplinary processes. However, as a former high school teacher I can testify that it would have been virtually impossible for me to teach effectively in an inner city classroom if I was not able to make a judgment decision about what constitutes proper behavior and be able to act on it when necessary for the benefit of learning.


    • Floyd Thursby on Mar 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm03/14/2014 2:05 pm

      • 000

      I’d really like to see the methodology of a study saying behavior problems don’t damage the learning experience of those who trying to learn. I agree, that’s just so counter to everything I’ve ever experienced and to basic common sense. I’ve seen classrooms, been in them, where one person selfishly demands so much attention that the teacher can barely get anyone’s attention. I’m not talking about a joke here and there, I am talking about kids who openly act abusive towards everyone around them. Do you think you’ll be able to keep any job acting this way? It’s important kids learn to obey an authority figure. Willfull defiance is not acceptable.

  9. Paul Muench on Mar 14, 2014 at 7:27 am03/14/2014 7:27 am

    • 000

    From the linked reports.

    “Clear evidence of systematic disparities in discipline practices in U.S. schools based on race and ethnicity exists: youth of color (especially African American and Latino) are disproportionately disciplined at school, and are over-represented in rates of exclu- sionary discipline (school suspension and expulsion). It is crucial to note that dispari- ties are less apparent for clearly defined ob- jective infractions such a violence, drugs, or weapons charges, and most apparent for those infractions that are more open to sub- jective interpretation, such as defiance, disre- spect, insubordination, clothing, or “talking back” violations. Historically, policy and research attention has focused appropriately on young men of color (in particular, African American young men), who are persistently and disproportionately disciplined at school.”

    Fear of violence can make people overreact. We know that young black men are killing each other at a high rate. We ought to address this violence.

  10. Floyd Thursby on Mar 13, 2014 at 11:31 pm03/13/2014 11:31 pm

    • 000

    This is just common sense.

    “there is no evidence that “bad” students need to be removed from class so “good” students can learn;”

    What world are you living in to say this? Not the real one.

    Also, test scores also don’t change among income groups. Poor Asians (bottom quintile) do better than top quintile African Americans and second to highest quintile whites. Just being upper income doesn’t mean you behave. I’d venture to say top quintile whites behave worse than middle income ones, probably not than the bottom rural area ones who do a lot wrong, but the highest income whites do all kinds of crazy stuff, more drugs, frat boys, etc. Even Bush got arrested for drunk driving and cocaine. So don’t talk about middle class like it automatically means you don’t misbehave.

    As long as the rules are applied fairly, that’s all that matters to me.

  11. Floyd Thursby on Mar 13, 2014 at 11:23 pm03/13/2014 11:23 pm

    • 000

    “We are never going to close the achievement gap until we close the disciplinary gap,”

    Hmm, the achievement gap is related to the study and TV hours gap. Nigerian Americanss are black and do better than whites. So do Cuban, Persian, and Asian Americans of most subgroups.

    The disciplinary gap is related to the behavior gap. Is it sexist that 7 out of 8 Americans in prison is a male? Or that most suspensions are male? No, it’s just based on worse behavior by mails.

    Instead of trying to convince black males to be more obedient to teachers, diligent, studious, and control impulses, turn off the TV, etc., they want to attack the fair enforcement of rules.

    Fair rules don’t guarantee equal enforcement. Asians murder at 1/7th the rate whites do in America, therefore fewer are in prison. Few Jews are in prison. Why is that in a nation that was once virulently anti-semitic and had a Jewish Quota in the Ivy Leagues similar to the current Asian one until the ’50s.

    Blacks are far more likely to kill and make up a disproportionate percentage in prison not because of racist practices by police, but due to historical racism, poverty but also due to actual behavior. Would anyone doubt African Americans commit murder more frequently than white Americans, or Asian Americans.

    I think this constant accusation of racism in this area is illogical.

    Also, give me a break, there is no evidence that kids misbehaving limits the learning of studious kids? Anyone who’s been in public schools knows that some kids act out and that distracts their learning.

    Look at groups of kids from schools going to a museum, a few kids are fascinated and want to learn, and the others take over and ruin the experience. It only takes about 5 out of 30 to ruin it for the rest, sometimes even one.


    • navigio on Mar 14, 2014 at 11:28 pm03/14/2014 11:28 pm

      • 000

      depends how you define murder and what timeframe you use.

      anyway, you’re missing the point. there is a discrepancy, and the impacts of it are disproportionately negative (and recursive). you can try all day to justify removing minorities from schools but schools are there to support everyone, not just those who have it easier. simply kicking people out who we fail to adequately engage isnt going to help anyone, not even the saturday-studiers in the long run. caring only for your own, the rest be damned is what got us in this predicament in the first place. bigger picture.

      • Paul Muench on Mar 15, 2014 at 4:24 am03/15/2014 4:24 am

        • 000

        Schools are not prepared to handle this problem. Perhaps this strategy will make schools “bad” enough so that people will vote to increase taxes. Given how segregated our schools are I’m tending to think a strategy like that will not work. The real problem is changing discipline strategies without having the support system to do any better. I think in general we have good ideas about how to make things better, but collectively we’ve decided not to do it at scale. Something like this really seems to help children change:

        • navigio on Mar 15, 2014 at 8:41 am03/15/2014 8:41 am

          • 000

          If they are not prepared to handle the problem, give them the resources to handle it. throwing away part of society is not a ‘solution’ Just as in the spirit of TJ, ““I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.” Work toward solution not toward exclusion.

          • Paul Muench on Mar 15, 2014 at 10:46 am03/15/2014 10:46 am

            • 000

            I agree on the end goal. I guess we have a different assessment of what this change will actually do.

            • navigio on Mar 15, 2014 at 11:28 am03/15/2014 11:28 am

              • 000

              I don’t think we necessarily have different views of the immediate impact under the assumption that nothing else changes. I just think the solutions one comes up with are not ‘viable’ if one focuses merely on a small set of students or even on schools only (to the exclusion of other areas of society). In a sense you are right that these things ‘force the hand’ of others, but remember, public education is there to serve everyone. If the system is forced to reduce its support to only a subset of society based on resource constraints, I don’t think its possible to argue that group should only be the ones for which the payoff is most likely. That’s what the private sector is for. And maybe more importantly, only one subset realistically has that option. Note that an alternative to forcing hands is to just do it right in the first place.

            • Paul Muench on Mar 15, 2014 at 11:42 am03/15/2014 11:42 am

              • 000

              My main concern is that defining the problem away will make the reporting go away which can lead to the problem “going” away. Of course this may help some kids because some teachers/administrators are really just not being fair. But given the research I’ve seen on this topic I think it very plausible that kids really are acting out due to the overstress caused by poverty. I read through the linked reports to see if I would change my mind, but I didn’t see (or missed) anything to give me any insight on why discipline is disproportionate. Are teachers giving kids second chances, but then being harsh on the reported incidents? Are teachers just overtly/covertly racist? Are teachers overstressed and overreacting? Any other suggestions? All those types of explanations may be invisible to researchers, so they may not even be able to address causes.

            • navigio on Mar 15, 2014 at 11:51 am03/15/2014 11:51 am

              • 000

              districts with space constraints will often put the lower achievers in rooms in the basement (sometimes special ed, sometimes those ‘acting out’, sometimes even minorities in general). its not the only problem, but these things are ingrained in a system that hasnt been given a real opportunity to make decision for kids rather than because of budgets. obviously there are millions of other things, but this is one example that pops to mind. some would argue this is overtly discriminator, others not. check out ‘the trouble with black boys’ (noguera). Even if you read just the intro. Its a good perspective on how this kind of stuff happens without people even realizing it.

            • navigio on Mar 15, 2014 at 11:59 am03/15/2014 11:59 am

              • 000

              and btw, one of the best things about that perspective is its not myopic. there is an admission that responsibility is also relevant. but trust me, there is enough ‘blame’ to go around, which means there are many issues to fix, not just one. we need to keep them all in mind when thinking about policy (which necessarily impacts things at the broadest scope).

            • Paul Muench on Mar 15, 2014 at 2:27 pm03/15/2014 2:27 pm

              • 000

              I read the introduction of the book you mentioned. Dr. Noguera mentions his criticism of Bill Cosby for just telling parents to do better. However, he seems to be doing the same by suggesting that teachers and administrators can just do better. Maybe that is true, but It’s not clear from the introduction why that’s true. I can see teachers and administrators running out of time and resources. At least every time the idea of positive discipline has come up in our district the response is there’s no time and people to make it work. This effects all children. The most vulnerable get impacted the most as usual.

            • navigio on Mar 15, 2014 at 4:31 pm03/15/2014 4:31 pm

              • 000

              I dont think its about just doing better. its about realizing how everybody’s actions contribute to the problem, even when not being aware of it.
              anyway, arguing about how to turn educating children into a cost benefit analysis is tacit acceptance that the only option is to deny somebody an education. that doesnt have to be true. but other options imply solutions that are greater than this discussion.

              i think its instructive to put oneself in the shoes of a public servant. if you were a board member, how could you justify actively denying the most disadvantaged members of your community? if there is any ‘backstop’, it has to be serving those with the least options, even if it means forcing out higher achievers. as much of a death blow that would be for public education (and yes it would be), i dont see how a public entity could choose to do anything else, except maybe denying everybody equally. equal protection is, after all, the law of the land.

            • Paul Muench on Mar 15, 2014 at 11:13 pm03/15/2014 11:13 pm

              • 000

              We’ll see what happens with the promise zones. Maybe that will be a way to get a broader set of resources into schools to help children. At least we’re trying something. And if teachers and administrators think they can make a difference by changing their mindsets, then more power to them.

      • Floyd Thursby on Mar 16, 2014 at 12:52 am03/16/2014 12:52 am

        • 000

        Navigio, the whold philosophy behind busing is to let the bad students get away from the bad influence of their peers and neighborhs and see the good influence of kids who do well. To make this work, we need parents and kids who are poor to actually try to change their life and habits to emulate those who are doing well, which include many poor people of immigrant ethnicities. If they just ignore it, we get nowhere. No one wants to remove them, just hold it as a last resort that tney can be suspended. If they obey teachers and emulate the successful kids, they’ll have a good life. If they learn it’s OK to be defiant and disrespectful, they’ll be poor for life. What’s liberal about that?

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