Our Kids Aren't Treated Equally at School

Black Leaders on Education: Biased discipline leads to educational inequality, says Sherrilyn A. Ifill.

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(Special to The Root) -- Continuing their historical practice of working together to address issues of concern to the African-American community, the NAACP, National Urban League, United Negro College Fund and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund are working cooperatively to improve educational opportunities for all students. This week, we will run op-eds by the leaders of each organization, to address a crucial aspect of what it will take to prepare our young people to succeed in life. Today: The acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund addresses the effects of inequality in school discipline. See previous essays in the series here.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The document and the event were separated by 100 years, but each spoke with equal clarity and urgency to the principles of liberty, equality and opportunity to which we aspire as a nation. There is perhaps no more important institution in keeping us on this path than the public education system. Yet, stark differences in the quality of education available to students of different races persist and demean us all. 

The extent to which African Americans are forced out of the classroom through expulsion or suspension is one of the most vivid manifestations of these divides. The Department of Education's most recent data sample shows that African-American students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers (pdf). And although they are only 18 percent of the student sample, African Americans are 39 percent of the students expelled from school, with nearly half of those suspended multiple times. 

Many schools inappropriately utilize police or security to discipline students, rather than depending on educators to do so. This practice leads to absurd results, such as when school police in Texas issued a $364 citation to a 14-year-old student with Asperger's syndrome for cursing in the classroom. Shockingly, a 6-year-old student was handcuffed and taken to a police station after she had a temper tantrum in her Milledgeville, Ga., school.

Tantrums are an uncomfortable but foreseeable part of early education; handcuffing a 6-year-old, however, reflects more on the state of mind of the adults in charge and indeed the state of our discipline practices in schools than it does on the unruly child. Sadly, race also plays a prominent role in unwarranted police contacts with students -- 42 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 35 percent of students arrested in school are African American (pdf).  

You might think that the alarming numbers of African-American students being excluded from schools and the reliance on security or law enforcement in schools are the unfortunate, natural results of worsening student behavior. You would be wrong. Research suggests that systemic problems, such as racial bias, affect exclusionary discipline, rather than student misbehavior. In fact, national trend data indicate that the total rate of self-reported school-based offenses has decreased (pdf) year after year, while rates of exclusionary discipline have soared dramatically and disproportionately. African-American students bear the brunt of this pernicious pattern.

Alarmingly, race has been demonstrated to be a predictive factor in determining who gets disciplined, for what conduct and how severely. The most comprehensive study conducted to date (pdf), which analyzed data from every seventh-grade student in Texas public schools for three years, isolated race from 83 different variables and found that African-American students were more likely to be disciplined at school than "otherwise identical white and Hispanic students."

Multiple studies have found that African-American students are typically punished for "subjective" offenses, such as disrespect, while white students are disciplined for "objective" offenses, like alcohol possession. And African-American students are punished more harshly than other students, even when committing the same offense. We cannot continue to tolerate these results.

The justification frequently offered for the high rates of suspension and expulsion of students and misuse of security and police is school safety, but these practices do not make our schools safer. The American Psychological Association has found that "zero tolerance" (pdf) and other harsh disciplinary approaches do not improve school safety.

Worse yet, excessive and inappropriate reliance on school-based law enforcement officers can actually promote disorder and distrust in schools. And when students are removed from the learning environment through suspension or expulsion, they are more likely to be held back a grade, become involved with the criminal justice system or drop out of school. Those who are arrested are twice as likely to drop out. Clearly, nobody benefits from this approach.