National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions

March 13, 2014

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:

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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