Our Kids Aren’t Treated Equally at School

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


We know better. Smart policy, common sense and social science all demonstrate that these practices cannot rest on any sound judgment. More importantly there are examples of schools, and even some entire school districts, that have rejected the harmful practices of exclusionary discipline and implemented proven strategies that improve school safety and increase academic performance:

* Parents, students and advocates in Denver worked with Denver Public Schools to revise the district’s discipline code to focus on the principles of Restorative Justice Practices, which provide structured opportunities for students and staff to identify and understand the root cause of behavioral missteps, and in doing so, develop better relationships between students and teachers. Following these changes and implementation of the new code in 2008, the expulsion rate was halved (pdf), and suspensions are down by a third.

* In response to a sharp increase in misdemeanor referrals from schools, a juvenile court judge in Clayton County, Ga., worked with the schools, the police, mental health providers and families to tackle the problem. They created a “school offense protocol” that helped distinguish between safety matters and discipline matters and routed those involved to the appropriate supports and interventions. This new approach led to a nearly 70 percent drop in court referrals (pdf) and a 20 percent increase in graduation rates.

* When two schools merged to form Alton Middle School, one of the largest schools in Illinois, there was a dramatic spike in the number of disciplinary incidents. In response, the school’s leadership implemented Positive Behavior Supports, a framework that helps schools improve relationships between students and staff and deepen bonds between schools and the communities that surround them, along with training designed to prepare educators to identify and respond to racial bias and inequity. As a result, the school’s suspension rate was reduced by 25 percent, and the largest drop occurred among African-American students. 

The new session of Congress offers an opportunity to address our national overreliance on exclusionary discipline. Last month, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) convened the first-ever Congressional hearing on this subject called “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Among the witnesses were Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who have both introduced legislation designed to collect better, more comprehensive data on discipline practices while also providing additional resources to schools with high or racially disparate rates of discipline. 

Through legislation that focuses on these issues exclusively, or a more comprehensive measure such as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Congress can take powerful, deliberate steps to address this harmful trend. Just as data on students’ academic performance is used to identify areas in need of remediation, school-level data regarding exclusionary discipline should be used to identify ways in which schools need to improve school climate and eliminate overreliance on suspensions and expulsions.

We have the potential to make meaningful, positive changes to our dysfunctional, unfair school-discipline system. One hundred and fifty years after emancipation and 50 years after Dr. King summoned us to narrow the gap between our promises and reality, can we finally break the destructive pattern of policy choices that condemns children to a life on the margins of society? For the sake of our children and our country’s future, the answer must be yes.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

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