How Many Studies Does It Take?

Every time a new study is released showing black students are suspended at far higher rates than any of their peers, the public seems shocked. Words like “race” and “school to prison pipeline” and “discrimination” find their way into headlines—and then the issue fades away yet again.

Every time a new study is released showing black students are suspended at far higher rates than any of their peers, the public seems shocked. Words like “race” and “school to prison pipeline” and “discrimination” find their way into headlines—and then the issue fades away yet again.

How many studies does it take for our society to demand the eradication of a disciplinary model that is discriminatory in impact and profoundly ineffective?

This week, we add yet another study to the pile—this one by the Civil Rights Project (CRP) at the University of California Los Angeles—showing racial discrepancies in out-of-school suspensions. Analyzing data from nearly 7,000 school districts across the country, the authors found that one in every six black students were suspended during the 2009-2010 school year, as opposed to one in 13 American Indian students, one in 14 Latino students, one in 20 white students and one in 50 Asian students. Black students were also more likely to be suspended repeatedly.

Race isn’t the sole risk factor.  The report also shows that when disability and gender are combined with race, the risk for suspension skyrockets. In some districts, suspension rates for male students of color with disabilities sometimes exceeded 33 percent.

As always happens in the wake of these studies, some people rush to deny that race plays any role in these statistical discrepancies. Russell Skiba of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University told Ed Week some schools claim students of color simply misbehave more than their white counterparts. When Teaching Tolerance wrote about a 2010 study, we heard: “Principals don’t care if you’re black or white,” “getting suspended isn’t a matter of DNA,” “this analysis proves nothing.”

The pushback is understandable.  It’s uncomfortable, even painful, to recognize that, in 2012, race still plays such a powerful role in the educational opportunities afforded to children and youth. But, taken as a group, the studies conducted over the past 10 years provide compelling evidence that we have to confront the role that race plays.

It is difficult to know, and impossible to quantify, the internal motives of those who disproportionately assign out-of-school suspensions to black students. What we do know is that that a significant percent of the suspensions given to black students are in response to “disrespect,” “excessive noise” or “disruption,”—behaviors that are subjectively judged. 

White students are typically suspended for objective, observable offenses such as smoking or vandalism. This suggests that administrators in schools with disparate suspension histories, when given the latitude, consistently interpret the behavior of black students more harshly.

Michael Thomas, of the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center told The New York Times that “We have enough data to show it’s more than just poverty and any greater misbehavior. My guess is it’s very subtle interactional effects between some teachers and students.” Intentional or not, this tendency restricts the opportunities of black students.

The choice to suspend a student doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A study of Texas schools conducted by the Justice Center in 2010 showed that even schools with similar demographics had widely varied rates of suspension, suggesting that school climate plays a significant role in how suspensions are doled out. Zero tolerance policies, SROs and metal detectors create a punitive culture within a school that increases suspension rates.

The cost of these policies and practices is high—both for students and for our society as a whole. Students who are given out-of-school suspensions are more likely to drop out of school and to face future incarceration.

The good news is that across the country states and districts are turning away from zero tolerance and out-of-school suspensions because they recognize the damage they cause. Part of that process is examining your school’s policies to see if a problem exists. Teaching Tolerance has tools to help you.

Policies that reward positive behavior and encourage self-management—such as reparative justice, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, student courts and behavior contracts—are far more effective discipline tools than zero-tolerance suspensions.  Schools are realizing this. 

By providing support and training for teachers and encouraging social and emotional strategies in the classroom, educators build a positive school environment that supports the education of all their students equally and leads to smaller achievement gaps and lower dropout rates.

If enough schools make the switch, maybe we’ll start seeing headlines with the words “academic success,” “progress” and even “equality.”

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