A new study published by the American Psychological Association finds that black students who attend a high school where they are disproportionately suspended more than their white counterparts feel that their school is less fair and less welcoming.
The study, “A Multilevel Examination of Racial Disparities in High School Discipline: Black and White Adolescents’ Perceived Equity, School Belonging, and Adjustment Problems,” was published online Oct. 13 in the Journal of Educational Psychology and used data from almost 20,000 students in 58 high schools across Maryland to analyze the “discipline gap” of excessive out-of-school suspensions that prior research has shown occurs across the country.
The study found that regardless of gender, socioeconomic status or grade level, black students at Maryland high schools with a discipline gap perceived less fair and inclusive treatment for students by race, and black students at schools with a larger discipline gap felt less cultural inclusion and less as if they belonged. Conversely, a discipline gap did not have the same effects on white students.
Lead researcher Jessika Bottiani, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, said that this is the first study that objectively characterizes schools based on excessive suspension of black students. She said the study asks what message this differential treatment sends to students about their place in the school.
“This can have an impact on students whether they are suspended or not,” Bottiani said. “Having a sense of belonging at school is linked to students’ engagement in school and their academic achievement.”
According to the study, although misbehavior by black and white students occurs at roughly the same rate, black students have experienced more severe and more frequent discipline for decades, including office referrals, suspensions and expulsions. Additionally, the national rate of suspensions of black youths in middle and high school has almost doubled since the 1970s. In 1973 the rate was 12 percent; that rate rose to 23 percent in 2012. The suspension rate for white students increased only from 6 percent to 7 percent over that same period.
The researchers also found that black students were suspended up to six times more often than white students at the schools they studied. Black students at schools with a larger discipline gap also reported higher levels of adjustment problems, including acting impulsively, getting mad easily and threatening to hurt others.
“If black students are being treated as if they are more aggressive or have more adjustment problems, that may trigger a stereotype threat where they begin to see themselves that way and act that way,” Bottiani said.
The researchers analyzed state and federal data from 7,064 black students and 12,622 white students at urban, suburban and rural high schools in Maryland during the 2011-2012 school year. Latinos and students of other races were not included because of small sample sizes of those students.
“Something needs to be done to disrupt the harm that is being caused by the discipline gap,” Bottiani said. “Suspensions need to be the consequence of last resort, and there has been a movement toward restorative practices that should continue.”
Read more at the American Psychological Association.