The data are clear: Black and Hispanic students are punished more often and more severely than their White counterparts. Less clear, however, is why this is or how to fix it.
LOS ANGELES — Amid increasing concern over racial disparities in the administration of student discipline in America’s schools, many have pointed to the racial bias of school officials to account for the disparities.
“[I]n our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students,” the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice said in January in the first-ever national guidelines for discipline in public schools. “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”
Citing the disparities, Attorney General Eric Holder has called on school districts to reconsider zero-tolerance discipline policies.
“Alarming numbers of young people are suspended, expelled or even arrested for relatively minor transgressions like school uniform violations, schoolyard fights or showing ‘disrespect’ by laughing in class,” he said in January.
But a growing body of academics and commentators are advancing a contrarian view — that minorities get in more trouble at school simply because they misbehave more frequently or more seriously.
“Racial disparities in school suspension rates are almost entirely the result of differing rates of misbehavior within different demographics, not school officials’ racism,” Hans Bader, senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, wrote in a May 20 post on the blog of the libertarian think tank.
He cited a new study in the Journal of Criminal Justice in which a team of criminologists and academics concluded that differences in rates of suspension between racial groups “appear to be a function of differences in problem behaviors that emerge early in life, that remain relatively stable over time, and that materialize in the classroom.”
“[S]chool disciplinary rates may also reflect the problematic behaviors of black youth,” the study said.
Bader also argues that the belief that stringent school discipline policies result in large relative racial differences in suspensions “is exactly the opposite of reality. Relaxing discipline standards and otherwise reducing discipline rates leads to larger, not smaller, relative differences in discipline rates.”
In the long run, he warned, threatening school districts with civil rights investigations for “racially disparate impact” in discipline will not eliminate harsh zero-tolerance policies but “reinforce them, since for all their warts, they have less ‘disparate impact’ than alternative, less rigid disciplinary rules.”
According to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, blacks, who comprise 16 percent of the total school population, accounted for 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement in the 2010-11 school year and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.
“The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said when the data were announced.
In nine of the 10 largest school districts in California, the Office of Civil Rights found, black and Hispanic students are suspended and expelled at rates far exceeding their numbers, while, among the population of white students, the equivalent rates were considerably lower than their numbers.
Black students compose 11.9 percent of the total enrollment in San Francisco, but accounted for 42.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 60 percent of all expulsions. In the Capistrano School District, Hispanics, who make up 24.6 percent of the student population, accounted for all five expulsions.
While Los Angeles school police have been issuing fewer tickets to students for fighting, daytime curfew violations and other minor infractions, the Community Rights Campaign of the Labor/Community Strategy Center recently reported that “the intense racialization of tickets and arrests has worsened. A Latino student continues to be more than twice as likely to be ticketed and arrested at school than a white student. Over the past year, a black student went from being four and a half times more likely to almost six times more likely to be ticketed and arrested at school than a white student.”
Researchers from Indiana University have found that black students are disproportionately referred for discipline for behavior that seems to require a subjective judgment call by teachers and administrators, for example, disrespect, excessive noise, threatening behavior and loitering. White students, on the other hand, are referred more frequently for behavior that can be documented objectively such as smoking, vandalism and using obscene language.
The statistics have grabbed the attention of Obama administration officials all the way up to the president himself. The Department of Education has launched investigations into at least five school systems because of their racially disparate discipline rates.
But according to the authors of the Journal of Criminal Justice study, “no set of variables has yet to account for the racial disparity in school discipline.”
“Some scholars have even advanced the idea that such disparities are evidence of a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ that targets disadvantaged, minority youth,” they wrote.
In their guidelines for public schools, the Education and Justice departments recognize that “disparities in student discipline rates in a school or district may be caused by a range of factors.” Research suggests, they said, that the substantial disparities reflected in the Office of Civil Rights data “are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color” and the “significant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the Federal civil rights laws.”
The guidelines cite the case of a school that imposed different sanctions on two students in the sixth grade — a non-Hispanic student and a Hispanic student — who had engaged in a fight. While the students had similar disciplinary histories, the Hispanic student received a three-day suspension and the non-Hispanic student received a two-day suspension.
Reflecting the government’s support of easing school discipline policies, the departments advised that “[t]he increasing use of disciplinary sanctions such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or referrals to law enforcement authorities creates the potential for significant, negative educational and long-term outcomes, and can contribute to what has been termed the ‘school to prison pipeline.’”
The Journal of Criminal Justice study — titled “Prior problem behavior accounts for the racial gap in school suspensions” — takes issue with the theory that disparities in discipline are a product of racial bias.
After analyzing data from a study that tracked 21,000 children from kindergarten through eighth grade, the researchers found that “the use of suspensions by teachers and administrators may not have been as racially biased as some scholars have argued.”
“[G]reat liberties have been taken in linking racial differences in suspensions to the racial discrimination,” they wrote. “Nowhere is this more evident than in the rhetoric surrounding the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”
Other critics of the administration include Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank. Writing for City Journal, she noted that the homicide rate among males between the ages of 14 and 17 is nearly 10 times higher for blacks than for whites and Hispanics combined.
“Such data make no impact on the Obama administration and its orbiting advocates, who apparently believe that the lack of self-control and socialization that results in this disproportionate criminal violence does not manifest itself in classroom comportment as well,” MacDonald lamented.
School districts around the country turned toward zero-tolerance school discipline policies in the wake of the Columbine shootings of April 1999. But according to MacDonald, school systems, reacting to the federal government’s anti-discipline push, “are jettisoning whole swaths of their discipline practices in order to avoid disparate impact.”
“Teachers are petrified to discipline students,” MacDonald quoted a teacher in Queens, N.Y., as saying.
Maryland, for example, is pressing its schools to eliminate suspensions for all nonviolent offenses. At least five states — Colorado, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware — have recently taken up reforms of zero-tolerance policies.
In a recent case in Tennessee, a white student who got into an altercation with a black student sued the school district for suspending him while the black student received no discipline. The suit alleged the school principal had instructed staff members to be more lenient in enforcing the school’s code of conduct against black students because a disproportionate number were serving in-school suspensions.
Bader of the Conservative Enterprise Institute and others contend that zero-tolerance policies yield smaller racial differences in discipline rates than more lenient policies because they increase the ratio of suspended white students to suspended black students. The anti-discipline push, they warn, will therefore widen the racial discipline gap.
“[T]he country will pay a high price for the feds’ blindness,” MacDonald said, as academically-oriented minority students are prevented from learning by disruptive students who, under stringent discipline policies, would have been removed from the classroom.