Racial disparity in school discipline

In nine out of California’s ten largest school districts African American and Hispanic students are suspended and expelled at rates far exceeding their numbers, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

In San Francisco, where African American students compose 11.9 percent of the total enrollment, they accounted for 42.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 60 percent of all expulsions. Hispanic students make up 24.6 percent of the student population in Capistrano School District, yet they received 46.3 percent of out-of-school suspensions and, although there were only five expulsions, all were Hispanic students. [Click here for look at all ten districts].

Nationwide, African American students make up 18 percent of the students in the Civil Rights Data Collection [CRDC] sample, but accounted for 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. The survey included more than 72,000 schools serving about 85 percent of the nation’s kindergarten through twelfth grade students.

“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,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.  “It is our collective duty to change that.”

Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali released the data Tuesday afternoon at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. It covered the 2009-10 school year.  The Department had been issuing discipline data every two years, but it was suspended during the George W. Bush administration.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights praised the Department of Education for resuming the data collection and release as the first step toward investigating districts that may be violating federal civil rights law. “Instead of creating equal opportunities for all of our students to thrive, too many schools are still stuck in an educational caste system,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, who pledged to support the Department’s efforts to enforce the law.

The information is especially useful in California, where districts are required to report the number of suspensions and expulsion but don’t have to disaggregate the data. “We know that looking at this data is essential to understanding what’s going on in any specific school district or school site,” said Diana Tate Vermeire, director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California.

Tate Vermeire sees a shift among the public and advocacy organizations to do something about the bias indicated by the data. “There’s never been a concerted effort to look at the issue of over-disciplining students,” she said, “and I think the tide is changing as there is more research tying disproportionate discipline to increased dropout rates and to poor grades.”

California legislators have introduced seven bills this session aimed at providing alternatives – or, what some advocates describe as “common sense” approaches – to dealing with student behavior problems.  Although federal and state law require students to be expelled for specific actions that fall under “zero tolerance” policies, administrators have wide discretion for all other behaviors, and that’s the area the bills address.

California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.

California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.

Under SB 1235 by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), schools that suspend 25 percent or more of their students, “or a numerically significant racial or ethnic subgroup of that enrollment,” during one academic year would have to implement research-backed strategies aimed at changing the behaviors that lead to suspensions.  [Click here for list of all the bills].

Steinberg acknowledged that sometimes schools have to take the most severe action in order to protect students, faculty and staff, but warned that when those punishments are overused for minor infractions they can backfire. “When students are kicked out of school, they lose valuable class time and are more likely to fall behind, drop out and get into even more trouble on the streets.”

So many students are affected in some low-income communities that when the California Endowment asked residents in fourteen neighborhoods what they would change in order to improve the health and education of young people, high levels of harsh school discipline came up in nine of those neighborhoods.

“We know that it’s important to hold kids accountable, but it’s more important to prevent the behavior by teaching conflict resolution and other approaches that are more positive,” said Mary Lou Fulton, senior project manager at the California Endowment.  A pilot program run by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which focuses on making amends or restitution for harm caused to people or the school, and working out conflicts non-violently, has reduced suspensions at Oakland’s Cole Middle School by 87 percent.  The results were so powerful that it’s expanding throughout the district.

The American Psychological Association has been promoting restorative justice for several years, especially an Association task force found no evidence that zero tolerance programs make schools safer or improve the school climate.

District officials need to ask themselves if the approach to school discipline they’re using is getting better result for the students and the schools, said Fulton.  “If it’s not helping students succeed, then why continue to go down this path?  There are so many difficult problems in California education.  This is something that can be solved; we know how to fix it.”

This entry was posted in Equity issues and tagged , , , on by .

About Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

25 thoughts on “Racial disparity in school discipline

  1. Hannah Katz

    It appears that next up will be discipline quotas.  Regardless of the numbers of kids acting up in class, teachers will be unable to discipline them if they come from a group whose discipline quota has already been met that month.

    So I guess the teacher will have to discipline an Asian female when a Black male assaults another student or even the teacher?  If one looks at the murder rates by ethnicity, one will find that Black males are way over their quota there too.  Shall we start arresting Asian females for these crimes, to get the quotas right? 

    Take away the ability to discipline students and our shortage of good teachers will grow exponentially.  This is bad news for students who want to receive a good education.

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  2. Navigio

    It’s surprising that the task force ‘ found no evidence that zero tolerance programs make schools safer or improve the school climate.’  I would have expected that removing disruptive students would be a benefit for the rest of the kids in class. In fact, many private school attendees that I know avoid public schools largely because they don’t feel this happens enough. This article seems to be implying that the opposite is happening.

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  3. Regis

    This whole form of race-based views and politics is highly polarizing.  If the ‘students of color’ behaved more like the ‘students of non-color’, than maybe they might not be expelled as often.  Defiance, rejection of the common culture of hard work and ethics is the norm.  But it must be the fault of the school.  The cry of racism is prevalent more and more often, instead of taking care of business and earning respect through positive results.

    Indeed and again, I’ll point out the incredible failure of LBJ’s ‘Great Society’ programs and that more and more, the ‘colored’ people are slaves to Government Entitlement programs and in California, the real Taxpayers are being shaken down to fund an endless variety of  costly ‘gimme’s’ by a growing population that is funded by the Taxpayer and nearly always votes as a Democrat.

    There is no more ‘personal responsibility’ for your actions.  Misbehave, be wild, truant, cut class and it’s somebody elses fault, not yours.  And you wonder why the LAUSD graduation rates for ‘students of color’ is absolutely dismal.

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  4. navigio

    Its interesting that this piece focused on the disparity in punishment. The report talks about many more things, both good and bad. An additional bad one is that the number of schools that offer Algebra is lower in some districts if the school is high-minority than low-minority. New York for example. On the other hand, exactly the opposite is true for some other districts (LA, SD).
    In addition, in virtually every district studied, the percentage of novice teachers was larger (in some cases much larger) in high-minority schools (along with an associated salary difference).
    Those are real structural issues that can be addressed objectively (unlike the question of punishment or swd classification).
    It is too bad that the study did not look at the home environment (as opposed to or in addition to the race) of students most likely to be disciplined.

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  5. CarolineSF

    This post overlooks a number of issues (including the one @Eric brought up). But also, what about the work on the impact of adverse childhood experiences led by San Francisco physician Nadine Burke? I found a good commentary by the estimable teacher-blogger John Thompson that summarizes it. Here Thompson is responding to a March 2011 New Yorker article about Burke’s work by Paul Tough (the full article isn’t available online, so I’m linking to Thompson’s description instead).
    Burke and Tough suggest an explanation of why this widely shared trauma has become so damaging in neighborhoods with intense concentrations of poverty. Adversity in early life can disrupt the brain circuits that are needed for literacy. Young students who have been traumatized often find it harder to sit still and follow directions. When a poor child who has endured trauma enters a neighborhood school class of thirty, he or she might join another nine who suffer from the same damage due to stress. Those survivors help “create in a classroom a culture of hitting, of fighting — not just for the ten kids but for all thirty.” In schools with so many suffering children, the “flight or fight” syndrome becomes a “cultural norm.” At-risk teens may over-react to confrontation. Or they might do the opposite and fail to recognize the risks that go along with being caught up in the school’s “drama.”
    Too many suffering kids then beat their own children and, again, it becomes a cultural norm where “it’s like, oh, black people beat our kids. That’s what we do.” [Note from Caroline: This is a quote from Dr. Burke, who is African-American.] Finally, the physiological effects of stress undermine immune systems, increase cardio-vascular disease, and cancer, as well as depression, further undermining the health of families further creating a downward cycle. Then, when our lack of an adequate health insurance system is thrown into the mix…
    It has been nearly five decades since liberals condemned Daniel Patrick Moynihan for “blaming the victim,” by articulating an admittedly crude theory of culture and poverty. The blame game remains as destructive as ever; the big difference is that today it is teachers who are demonized.

    Sometimes, I wonder whether it would better to take an attitude of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” For instance, what if this post was written without mentioning race, class, family, alcohol, drugs, or depression? Even then, a cost benefit analysis of the damage done by stress would still be astounding. Even if we ignore all issues that could be remotely considered to be “blaming the victim,” we could still make a powerful case that turning up the stress on educators is not a good way of addressing the legacies of trauma.

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    1. Kathryn Baron Post author

      Caroline, No question that there are environmental and socio-economic factors that children can’t always leave outside the schoolhouse door. That’s where programs like restorative justice come in. Many of the comments here raise strong and provocative issues that require their own articles to do them justice, and we plan to follow up on those issues.

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  6. CarolineSF

    And I’m not overlooking the fact that racism and social injustice DO exist in schools and DO contribute to disproportionately meted-out punishments. A classic situation goes beyond schools, of course — the fact that crack (heavily used in the African-American community) draws much heavier sentences than powdered cocaine (which is pricier and favored by the high-income).
    However, when educators are discouraged from disciplining students, it potentially puts other students’ safety at risk. And the press needs to think hard about that when covering these issues, too. Go deeper. You have a responsibility; your work has significant impact; don’t take it lightly.

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  7. Pingback: The Educated Guess: Racial disparity in CA school discipline : SCOE News Reader

  8. Carol Brydolf

    Thanks, Carolyn, for your insightful comments. The bottom line is that too many students of color are not succeeding in public schools (and life), and we need desperately to figure out how to change that. Whether they are too damaged or traumatized to find school engaging or teachers lack the training and support needed to address the needs of disruptive students–the persistent problem of widespread failure among disadvantaged students is a moral and economic issue. We can’t afford to fail with such a high percentage of children of color, and, of course, it would be great not to let any child fall through the cracks no matter whether she’s poor and traumatized or from an affluent, emotionally healthy family.  Kids with advantages suffer too, and many of them can’t succeed in school for a variety of reasons. If we didn’t continue to starve the public education system, we might stand a better chance of supporting all children.

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  9. el

    I think the end of the article is more useful than the beginning, with its emphasis on alternate discipline and restorative justice.
    A suspension needs to be a last resort. As a student not enjoying class, I can’t imagine a more delightful outcome, honestly, than to get to stay home from school. In-school suspensions seem much more effective and deterring. Community service and other actions – which themselves have educational value – would seem a better strategy for most infractions.
    Our school found that in-school suspensions dramatically improved behavioral issues and lowered suspensions. They have also deployed the Love and Logic discipline plan, and have found that helpful. Staff offer parenting classes in that style as well. I would love to see all the parents attend, to help parents understand the style the school is using, as well as adding more tools to the toolbox.
    Zero tolerance has been known to produce wacky results, with students suspended or expelled for unintentionally possessing forbidden items.

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  10. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

    I once suggested to a veteran excellent San Diego teacher that perhaps our teachers (who are predominantly Anglo, as in most communities on these lists, I’m sure) could benefit from a program of cross-cultural training to improve  their understanding of African-American and Latino students who were so frequently named for disciplinary action. He said there should be a program for the entire community on “the culture of school.” I had to agree that is the bottom line. In the classroom what matters is that teachers teach and students learn. The greater problem is societal in nature and the school’s response has to be limited to maintaining its mission.
    Classrooms need to be protected for teaching and learning. Schools can provide detention on campus, separate from the academic classroom but not out on the street, where there can be conflict resolution, peer counseling, proper attention paid the student’s grievance or underlying issues that led to her acting-out. There are alternative schools. But teachers need to be supported in their disciplinary decisions. Principals need to have their teachers’ backs always, and can work with them subsequently to develop “management” skills. Good school principals and a stable staff together can develop workable solutions to school discipline.
    Students who are cited for disciplinary action at any school usually come from families that are stressed, and if they are kids of color it’s likely that their families are poor and suffer disproportionately from all the instability and negatives that come with poverty. School systems do have the power to improve some things. Poor neighborhoods’ public schools commonly are heavily staffed with the newest and greenest teachers, per union rules about  seniority — who gets first choice in assignments. Sometimes principals there don’t really want to be in what’s perceived as a combat zone. Poor neighborhoods’ schools have tremendous teacher turnover and also lose entire swaths of newbie teachers when pink-slipping cutbacks happen, when union rules about last-hired/first-fired actually work against establishing school stability.
    Still, it’s important and useful to see these percentages: they are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. They illustrate what’s happening to our predominantly poor kids of color who still show up  at school because it’s better than the street corner or at a chaotic home in front of the television. A better life is what should be happening to these kids,  but the responsibility for remedy cannot be displaced on the underfunded overcrowded public school.

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  11. pamzella

    I must agree with CarolineSF- and thanks for that article you posted.  Having been at a school (that could have easily been 99-100% students of color, but I’m not sure)  where there WERE quotas for discipline and suspensions, if not outright but implied, student-on-student violence was worse.  Administration didn’t want to pursue the discipline policy because they’ve have to account for it.  Teachers  who observed violence and reported it found those same students back in class like nothing happened, which undermined their authority, and made them not want to get involved in incidents that would, in the long run, continue to undermine them and affect their classrooms.  And the students committing acts of violence got away with more and more, and the other students lived in fear- real fear, because it was entirely possible, more so as the school year went on, that they could be a target, and that the adults they’d like to turn to were not empowered to help them.  And fear, we know, affects our brain’s ability to focus, process and learn new information.
    I like the idea of restorative justice and Peer Courts and offering students other ways of handling situations, modeling and reflecting and encouraging them to see themselves as a members of a community affected by their behavior, and changing the cycle.  But sometimes it goes too far… in some of the systems I’ve read about in CA, victims of assault have had to face their attackers in Peer Court…. and you know, if restorative justice is employed primarily to lower the numbers of other disciplinary action, and the results are not enforceable, that’s a scary thing to ask another minor who has already been victimized once to do.  We’ve certainly established that we’re not doing a very good job of handling bullies to date.

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  12. Paul

    I am relieved to see that other readers recognize this for what it is: an unverified claim that differing punishment rates are due to bias rather than to differing behavior patterns. It is likely that students who misbehave more often are punished more often.
    I am all for zero tolerance. Correct application of the suspension provisions in the Education Code would be a good start. San Diego Unified, for example, publishes a very clear table outlining optional and mandatory suspension scenarios.
    Suspension is not ideal, but by law it is the main escalation available in non-charter public schools. (Charters are free to establish alternative discipline policies. Some follow stricter policies, some adopt the Education Code section voluntarily, and others have no operative discipline policy.)
    Suspension is beneficial to the system in that it allows instruction to proceed for most students, by permitting temporary removal of small numbers of badly-behaved students. However, suspension is completely ineffective for the badly-behaved students themselves. They report looking forward to staying home during the day, with little or no parental supervision and no academic work. (Suspension is an unexcused absence, for which teachers may, but are not required to, provide make-up work.) A punishment that students enjoy isn’t a punishment. Sensible alternatives include immediate revocation of privileges, such as before-school and after-school access to campus; access to assemblies, field trips, sports games, dances, etc.; and permission to participate in extra-curricular activities.

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  13. Public Access

    Why do these repeated data revalations never get beyond blaming the system?  These numbers have been repeated for decades.  At some point, the source of the numbers, the students involved, have to be questioned.  As an African-American, (even though you haven’t enjoyed an African experience) why are you so angry?  The Latino student who deliberately self destructs, Why?  So many parents or grandparents of these students sacrificed in ways that defy reason to get into America for a better life for their children.  Why do the Asian students exhibit superior intellectual pursuit and a penchant for leadership with the ability to fit in?  Why do white students flee to the private schools?  Why do you assume that the people working in the public school system must discriminate against any ethnic group, when they are in the majority?  These are useless reports. 

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  14. Public Access

    I worked in the Watts area of Los Angeles in my formative years, and I as a caucasion, was in the vast minority.  There was a formidable attempt to reflect the student population with the staff members.  What was amazing, was that I could demand so much more from the students than their ethnic partners could.  I established a “No-Nigger zone in my classroom because it offended me.  (The students could not refer to each other in that term).  The students respected that, and when the black teachers tried it, they were met with resistance.  I was counselled out of the school because I was disruptive.  “Got to know the culture” to get along.  Hated the San Fernando Valley and became a pawnbroker.

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  15. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

    Public Access, that tough-love does not make you an effective  teacher. It sounds like  you have found your calling.
    But your story is one recognized by every person who has ever set foot in an urban public high school classroom. Being an “educator” in such an environment is hugely challenging — an art, really  – and is acquired only with assistance from peers and principals and by dedicated perseverance.
    I wish as much attention were paid to refining this crucial skill among teachers as to creating laundry lists of what ethnic groups get the most referrals and suspensions.

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