Suspensions Are Racist

Harsh, exclusionary discipline in public schools disproportionately affects students of color. This is a combination of biases and policy.

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Public schools don’t just provide education. The institutions also police the behavior of some 50 million American children. That policing occurs in a number of ways, including metal detectors, tardy slips, and trips to the principal’s office. One of the most the severe disciplinary practices, however, is suspension, the act of pulling a disruptive kid out of school for a selected amount of time. But there’s something deeply troubling about the way suspensions are handed out. 

According to recent scrutiny by public policy experts and researchers regarding disciplinary policies and their effect indicates schools are targeting the 14.5 million children of color and children with disabilities in our country unfairly. In fact, according to federal data released by the Civil Rights Data Collection, black children are suspended at much higher rates than their white peers, even when controlled for all variables.

The state of school suspension — and who it affects the most — isn’t new. The racist policy application first came up during desegregation. In the 1950s, lawyers fighting for desegregation were concerned students of color were being disciplined and taken out of the classrooms for a sinister purpose and with racist intent. As they discovered, they were right to be concerned: Black kids were ultimately subjected to thousands, if not millions, of unfair suspensions by racist educators. 

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, punishment, and behavior.

Now, it seems less likely that policies would be applied by teachers and administrators with a racist agenda. But, according to Sarah Hinger, a Staff Attorney at the ACLU, little has changed.

Black students are more likely to be disciplined for being disruptive,” Hinger says. “Sometimes, suspension is used as a quick-fix where there’s a lack of other resources and tools available. It provides a sense of immediate response: You’re doing something and the child is removed from the classroom.”

Hinger is right: the problem is that it’s just a quick fix. Removing a kid from a space is unlikely to help them deal with the reasons they acted out because the action merely removes the child from the classroom. It doesn’t help them with their issues. And it’s extremely likely to have negative consequences and ensure a bad relationship with authority.Research shows that even one suspension can decimate a child’s achievement growth through the education system, making them more likely to drop out of school, engage in risky behavior, and wind up in the criminal justice system.

And then there’s an issue with who’s handing out the suspensions. According to Dr. Edward M. Morris, a professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, more than 80 percent of public school teachers in the United States are white. “There’s a lot of evidence that they misinterpret the behaviors of non-white kids,”  he says. It follows that students of color are judged more harshly for minor infractions, which require a teacher to interpret motivation. It’s hard to combat implicit bias even in a genuinely empathetic teacher amid a cloud of rules and regulations especially in low resource environments. So, black kids are unduly burdened with the flaws of a broader system.

If there were to be any doubt about that fact, Morris can put it to rest. He has the receipts. He co-authored a large study that tested whether suspensions were being handed out in a racist manner and, controlling for all other socioenomic factors, he found that 23 percent of all black students will be suspended at least once in their school career. In fact, they are four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. What’s more, students of color are far more likely to be disciplined for subjective violations, notably behavioral issues, than objective violations of school code.

Morris found that for every time a student was suspended from school, their achievement growth went down nine points. Even if a student is only suspended for three or four days, and they work hard the next year and bounce back on the achievement tests, they’re still farther behind than if they hadn’t been suspended. Which makes one wonder who suspensions are actually serving.

Dan Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, argues that public schools aren’t the only schools that have massive oversight when it comes to disciplining kids. Some charter schools, he says, have “Broken Windows” policing as their guiding philosophy for how to create a school climate. “Broken windows is what we saw in Ferguson — it comes from the failed and racially oppressive enforcement strategy of booking people for every little offense,” he says. “The idea is: We’re going to show you that everything matters, and that way we’re going to reduce crime.”

Many would argue that having a no-nonsense policy will help kids behave. Research shows that much of the discipline in public schools is exclusionary and punitive. The more you take a kid out of school for minor offenses — following that Broken Windows policing policy – the more likely they are to fall way behind their peers.

So what’s the solution to such an issue? Well, one could be to aggressively try to pull teachers of color into school systems, which some evidence suggests might help. But that likely wouldn’t be enough because minorities are likely to become minority voices on largely homogenous staffs. In fact, Morris has looked at the data and found that school teaching staff racial composition makes little difference in rates of suspension of students of color. He points out that even people of color aren’t immune to implicit biases, especially if the support system reiterates them.

Complaints are often met by those reluctant to embrace real reform with an old cliche: “Education is a privilege.” In America, this is actually false. The protection clause of the 14th amendment assigns that when a state establishes a public school system, no student may be denied equal access to said school system. The continued racist policing of children’s behavior is, viewed in that context, a potential constitutional violation. The argument that change is not just morally necessary but legally enforced waits in the wings. 

Experts say there are legitimate solutions to the problem. What there isn’t is a quick fix.

Losen recommends tiered interventions. It’s what he did for the 10 years he taught in the public school system before he went to law school and began to work with the Civil Rights Project. In his own classroom, Losen focused on positive reinforcement, checking in with students who acted out to see what was going on. After all, behavioral issues generally don’t emerge from malign motives. Kids surely do dumb stuff for no reason, but they rarely do malicious stuff unprompted. Suspensions, Losen says, are what’s doing nothing. Focusing on your students will also help them feel the students the whole system isn’t stacked against them — even when it is.

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