From pre-school to prison: racial disparities in school discipline

May 13, 2018

From pre-school to prison: racial disparities in school discipline

Graphic by Elena Ramez

In 2013, it was reported that African American students in DC public and charter schools were nearly six times more likely to be disciplined than white students. Similarly, Latino students were more than two times as likely to to be disciplined than white students.  

Throughout the country, a national conversation about disparities in school discipline has emerged. Data shows a definite correlation between race and suspension rates. It is much more difficult, however, to prove causation: Are minority students being unjustly disciplined? Or do they truly commit suspendable offenses at higher rates?

Principal Kimberly Martin addressed Wilson’s own disciplinary history. “We do suspend more African American students than any other students, and our repeat offenders are all African American males,” said Martin. “Which would leave me to believe that there is some bias in the way we are suspending kids.”

So far this year Wilson has made 119 suspensions. 61 percent of suspended students were Black, 18 percent were Hispanic, and 14 percent were white. Wilson’s enrollment is currently 32 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic, and 34 percent white.

Wilson’s Human Rights Club recently led a meeting discussing racial disparities in school discipline. “I’ve been here four years and I’ve definitely done stuff that I could be punished for and I’ve never gotten in trouble for them,” said senior Claire Shaw, one of the club leaders. “I really strongly believe that’s correlated to my race.”

Disparities in school discipline have often been tied to the concept of a “school-to-prison pipeline.” This term has been coined to describe the tendency of youth criminalized in schools, specifically those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to be incarcerated as adults in U.S. prisons.

A 2011 study of the school-to-prison pipeline by the Public Policy Research Institute involved an experiment isolating the effect of race on disciplinary actions. The experiment controlled for 83 variables, including the racial majority in the student body, socio-economic status, and student-to-teacher ratio. Through extensive analysis of suspension data in Texas’ public school system, the report found that African American students were 31 percent more likely to be the recipient of disciplinary action than otherwise identical white or Hispanic students.

The study’s data additionally revealed that a student disciplined in school was almost three times as likely to come in contact with the juvenile justice system the next year.

The extensive use of out-of-school disciplinary action started in the ‘70s, due to a nationwide crackdown on crime in schools. The number of national suspensions increased from 1.7 million in 1974 to over 3.3 million in 2006.

The trend continued with a national movement to be “tough on crime” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In an effort to make schools safer, state legislatures increased accessibility to juvenile justice records, and attempted to make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults for serious crimes. Subsequently, the number of incarcerated African Americans skyrocketed nationwide: In 1993, Blacks were incarcerated at a rate of seven times that of whites.

Racial disparities in suspensions become prevalent as early as preschool. While only 18 percent of preschool students are African American, this demographic makes up 48 percent of preschool students receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. In contrast, 43 percent of preschool students are white, but white students make up only 26 percent of preschool children punished with more than one out-of-school suspension.

Ten states and DC have reported gaps in suspension rates between white and minority students. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, student suspension and out-of-school discipline at a young age leads to future disciplinary issues with harsher penalties. Students are more likely to fail to graduate, abuse drugs, become truant, or serve time in prison.

A 2014 government statement addressed the use of exclusionary disciplinary practices in early childhood development, “There is evidence that expulsion or suspension early in a child’s education is associated with expulsion or suspension in later school grades.” They further explained that suspension at a young age makes students 10 times more likely to drop out in high school.

Disparities in suspensions are evident in some of Wilson’s feeder schools as well. The most recent Civil Rights Data Collection survey conducted of Alice Deal’s student body was in 2015. The survey reported 58 suspensions in the 2014-2015 school year. Among those suspended, 29 were Black, and six were white. In Hardy’s 2015 survey, it was reported that of the 78 students suspended, 55 were Black and six were white. That year, Deal’s student body was 31 percent Black and 45 percent white, while Hardy’s was 59 percent Black and 13 percent white.

Martin noted that in her time as an educator, she has seen frequent disparities in how students are disciplined at a young age. “If a student doesn’t know how to sit or behave in ways that the teacher wants to encourage or acknowledge for a five-year-old or a six-year-old, is that really their fault?” said Martin. “African American students are often accused and disciplined for student behavior, and white students can exhibit similar or exact same behavior and it’s ignored.”

In 2017, at-large Councilmember David Grosso introduced the “Student Fair Access to School Act,” to address these racial disparities. The bill was intended to limit suspensions and expulsions in elementary school, with the hope that this trend will continue through middle school and high school.

A similar bill passed the council in early 2018. The approved legislation limits usage of out-of-school suspensions in kindergarten through eighth grade for serious incidents, and bans its usage in high school for minor offenses.

Martin noted that there is a need to limit out-of-school suspensions, specifically among African American students, but does not see the bill as a sustainable solution. “You can’t take something away without putting something in its place,” said Martin. “Does that mean we leave kids who are getting turnt up in the classroom, in the classroom?”

English Department Chair and staff advisor for Common Ground, Jennifer McLaughlin, noted the subject’s complexity. “The idea that we can relate suspension rates to who is going to be in jail later in life is the most depressing thing walking into a school building,” she said. “The truth is if you get in a fight in school, I want you to be held accountable for that. But I also know that holding you accountable for that has long-term implications.”

Much of the controversy surrounds the offenses in question. According to a 2002 study by The Urban Review, Black students are often suspended for offenses that are more subjective than their white counterparts. This may include being disrespectful, loitering, or making excessive noise. In contrast, white students are likelier to be disciplined for more objective offenses such as smoking, leaving school without permission, vandalism, or obscene language.

Wilson’s disciplinary policies, listed in the student handbook, include potential off-site suspension for tier three, four, or five offenses. These include inappropriate use of DCPS computers, gambling, trespassing, bullying, vandalism, and sexual assault, among others. Punishments are often subjective, however, and may differ from person to person based on the severity of the offense and whether or not the student is a first time offender.

Schools across the country have worked to decrease out-of-school suspensions and expulsions through the increased use of initiatives like restorative justice. Restorative justice is a concept that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by misbehavior. Rather than suspension or expulsion, punishments for non-violent or drug related offenses may instead include community service, or peer mediation. At Wilson, an additional alternative to suspension is In-School-Suspension (ISS).

Disparities in Wilson’s ISS data are equally as striking. Of 22 In-School-Suspensions reported this school year, 68 percent of students have been Black, 27 percent of students were white, and 5 percent were Hispanic.

“The people who are in ISS are veterans of ISS, like they’re always going back,” said a white student who is familiar with Wilson’s disciplinary system, but has never received ISS. This student was involved in a fight outside of school with another white student, and points to the fact that neither were punished as evidence of disparity in Wilson discipline.

Another concern with ISS is that it is ineffective in correcting behavior. “I’ve been in ISS like two or three times and I’ve had out-of-school suspension like twice,” said another white student at Wilson. Their disciplinary history includes drug possession, drug consumption, and fighting. The student explained that during ISS students “just sit there and do nothing,” and does not feel that ISS or out-of-school suspensions were effective in encouraging him to improve his behavior.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced a five-year strategic plan for DCPS in 2017 that included a goal to reduce suspension rates across the district. The plan included expanding support and training for restorative justice practices. DCPS’ restorative justice practices include mediation, parent conferences, and behavior contracts, written agreements that explore what measures individuals with problematic behavior need to take to move forward positively.

Wilson is the only comprehensive DCPS high school with a significant population of white students. Wilson’s suspension rates are also currently amongst the lowest among comprehensive high schools in the District, according to Martin.

Up until this year, Wilson’s suspension rates have appeared to be on a downward trend. During the 2014-2015 school year, 235 students were suspended. In the 2015-2016 year, 78 suspensions were made. During the 2016-2017 school year, Wilson made 72 total suspensions.

While the trend appears positive, it is unclear whether the data reported is truly indicative of progress. According to a 2017 Washington Post article, a Post analysis showed that at least seven DC public and charter high schools have sent students home or instructed them not to come to school without reporting it as a suspension. The analysis did not include Wilson in its data review.

Disparities in school discipline encompass more than suspensions and expulsions. In light of the attendance scandal at Ballou High School in December of 2017, DCPS issued a city-wide initiative to improve attendance rates. They have since enforced a policy that lowers students’ grades if the student has five or more unexcused absences in one advisory.

Despite DCPS’ fervent introduction of the initiative, Martin says the policy has not been uniformly enforced. “A whole group of students were having extreme truancy but a lot of teachers were making allowances for AP students,” she explained. “Every one of those students was white. I didn’t see a lot of Black kids who were getting these kinds of accommodations.”

While positive changes are being made to the ways in which DCPS disciplines its students, Martin points out that there are other factors at hand, “As a school principal I don’t have a way of putting a father in every home, or giving parents a livable wage, or eradicating racism or social inequality, or increasing a mother’s education,” Martin said. “These [are] all factors that are related to suspensions that are outside of my control.”

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