A new study proves what many already suspected: Your chances of getting suspended in middle school rise dramatically if you are black.
The study, “Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis,” was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the home of Teaching Tolerance.
Analyzing U.S. Department of Education data from between 2002 and 2006, the authors found that black boys in urban middle schools were three times as likely as white boys to be suspended. Suspension rates for black girls were four times those of white girls. And suspensions in general have risen steadily since the 1970s.
The relationship between discipline and academic achievement is well known. Students who receive suspensions in middle school are far less likely to get high grades, go to college or even finish high school. They are far more likely to wind up in the school-to-prison pipeline.
The data should shock schools into action. Every administrator today makes data-driven academic decisions. But are they looking deeper? We think every principal should examine her school’s disciplinary statistics: Is out-of-class discipline meted out proportionately among student demographic groups? If not, what are the disparities? And at what stage in the disciplinary process do they appear or accelerate? An equity audit or school survey, like the Teaching Diverse Students Initiative school climate survey, can help.
Schools that find racial disparity in their disciplinary actions should start a program of self-examination. Are teachers unknowingly biased in their treatment of students of color? What can administrators and teachers do to combat the insidious and often hidden preferences for certain students over others? We recommend “I don’t think I’m biased?” to start the process of self-reflection among school staff members. The goal is to interrupt habitual responses to student behavior that may be influenced by teachers’ false perceptions.
The principal should also take a look at the demographics of both staff and students. Is there a cultural mismatch? A lack of shared cultural background between white, middle-class teachers and students of color can lead to misunderstandings and culturally-biased perceptions.
Of course, the most important change should take place in the classroom. Instruction that is culturally relevant to all students can help stave off inappropriate behavior, build connectedness to school and promote engagement in the curriculum.
And finally, it’s essential to face this issue head on. Principals and teachers need to talk about race and racial disparities openly and honestly.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance