Discriminatory Discipline

There’s no denying that the US education system is trigger-happy when it comes to passing out suspensions. According to some reports, 1 in 3 students in America are suspended at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade. In 2011, enough students were suspended to fill the stadiums of the first 45 Super Bowls, effectively eliminating nearly 18 million days of instruction from our nation’s children in that year alone. There are those, of course, who argue that such dependence on suspensions represents a necessary element of a disciplined education system, and that suspensions are the only way to stop disruptive behavior and keep schools safe. And though there is some truth to that claim, the insidious side of suspensions is revealed by studying which students are actually being suspended: students of color are far more likely to be suspended than their white peers, contributing to our nation’s stubbornly persistent racial educational achievement gap.

According to the US Department of Education, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times higher than that of white students. The gap in suspension rates grows even higher when broken down by gender: 45% of girls given suspensions are black, despite the fact that black girls are a small minority of the national student body. Analyzing suspension disparities by state produces even more shocking results, though: for instance, 74% of all suspensions from public high schools in Mississippi were dealt to black students, compared to a still-problematic 34% in New York.

When comparing the suspension disparity, it’s also important to understand the impact that suspensions have on students. Most obviously, suspensions decrease the amount of time students have to learn in school, but there are also less apparent consequences. Frequent use of suspensions has been shown to lead to higher dropout and delinquency rates. Furthermore, suspensions have a psychological impact on the students who receive them, sending an important message about who is and who isn’t included in a school’s community. More broadly, high rates of suspension at a school have even been shown to harm the test scores of non-suspended students, a trend attributed to the heightened stress and disconnection created by a punitive environment.

If we ever hope to meaningfully close our nation’s racial educational achievement gap, we need to stop reinforcing it by disproportionately unloading these ill effects of suspensions on students of color. While the ramifications of the suspension disparity are clear, its causes are somewhat less apparent. Some might see the huge disparities in suspension rates and assume that black students are merely committing more transgressions in school than their white peers. However, a Department of Justice and Department of Education joint letter in 2014 pointed out that a huge body of research on this subject disproves that explanation, showing that disparities in suspension rates aren’t due to more numerous or more severe misbehaviors by students of color. Yet if students of color aren’t any more poorly behaved than their white peers, why are they being suspended at such enormously higher rates?

Two researchers, Amanda Lewis and John Diamond, set out to answer this question in 2003 by studying the drivers of inequality in an ostensibly race-blind suburban school. At the core of the suspension disparity, they found, were two simple but powerful forces: implicit bias and the disparate power of parents. Implicit bias — the prejudice and stereotyping lurking within one’s subconscious mind — led teachers to associate black students with dangerousness and criminality, and thus provoked them to suspend them for behaviors for which white students were not punished. Teachers influenced by implicit bias may not even realize that they are suspending students of color at a higher rate, and may try their hardest to use discipline in a fair and impartial manner, and yet still fall prey to their biases when handing out suspensions. In this way, race-blind disciplinary policies executed by well-meaning teachers and administrators still end up perpetuating the racial suspension disparity.

If we ever hope to meaningfully close our nation’s racial educational achievement gap, we need to stop reinforcing it by disproportionately unloading these ill effects of suspensions on students of color.

The heightened power of white parents further drove the disparity in the study, ensuring that white students were suspended less frequently: when white students were suspended, white parents would organize collectively and campaign against the suspension, making teachers more reticent to suspend white students while also making it less likely that a proposed suspension would stick to a white student. Parents of color, commonly excluded from the parental community which white parents use to rally this support, and more frequently ignored when they lodge a complaint with school administration, cannot offer these same advantages to their children.

Unfortunately, though we have a good picture of the causes and effects of the suspension disparity, there isn’t one simple solution to it. Though the Department of Education has in recent years increased the number of agency-initiated compliance reviews it conducts on potentially discriminatory disciplinary systems, this slow, school-by-school review of practices will never solve the national problem of discriminatory suspensions — between September 2009 and July 2012, the Department of Education resolved only 789 of these reviews, barely even a dent in the thousands and thousands of schools which still enforce discipline in a discriminatory way. Compliance reviews are a helpful tool, but considering how massively widespread disciplinary discrimination is, they move far too slowly to ever truly address the problem.

Since the racial disparity in discipline is perpetuated by the nearly unstoppable forces of implicit bias and disparity in institutional power, no clear policy exists that could stop color-blind discipline codes from being enforced in a discriminatory manner. This unequal enforcement could be slightly curtailed by training teachers to recognize their implicit biases, but, unfortunately, merely telling someone about their implicit biases does not free one from them. In the immediate future, it seems, the discriminatory enforcement of discipline is unavoidable — as such, the only way to truly fight it is to reorient our schools away from disciplinary suspensions entirely.

To address the problem of discrimination, we need a fundamental transition away from our overdependence on suspensions. School districts need to reevaluate their funding, putting a higher priority on student mental health services and a lower priority on policing their students. Moving away from suspensions and toward student support would undoubtedly look different at every school it is implemented in. Despite this variation, several policy changes have proved to be broadly effective. Training programs for teachers in behavior intervention skills, threat assessment, and cultural understanding have been effective at lowering reliance on suspensions, as have larger changes such as offering substance abuse interventions and entirely replacing suspensions with restorative justice programs focusing on accountability, counseling, and behavioral change. These restorative justice programs have many forms, but all depend on holding students accountable to those harmed by their actions, then facilitating reconciliation and an end to destructive behaviors — a much more productive option than merely sending misbehaving students home for days on end.

Building a system which supports students rather than suspending them will be a difficult process, but it’s a vitally important one. America can’t suspend its way out of its educational achievement gap — it needs to build its way out through investments in fairness.