End Racial Disparities in School Discipline

There is a conspiracy against Black children in our schools. When I say conspiracy I’m not suggesting there are shadowy figures sitting behind closed doors actively plotting how they can harm Black students. Instead, I’m suggesting there is a quietly kept fact among teachers and school administrators that Black students are treated differently and disproportionately more disciplined than other groups of students.


cool patternNo place is this more evident than in the racial disparities in school discipline.


The harsh truth is that teachers’ perceptions and subsequent reactions to students’ bad behavior, especially the perceptions and reactions of some White teachers, are often impacted by the race of the students. Black students do not, as a general rule, receive the benefit of the doubt in instances of bad or questionable behavior, whereas other students do. This lack of consistency essentially results in the criminalization of Black students’ behavior.


The truth is in the numbers. A recent report found that Black students received disproportionately higher rates of suspension and expulsion in 13 Southern states, including Texas. The findings, while not surprising to many people such as myself who have studied racial disparities in school discipline, are nonetheless alarming:


  • 2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in one academic year.
  • 55 percent of the suspensions and 50 percent of expulsions occurred in 13 Southern states.
  • Black students were disproportionately suspended at rates five times or higher than their representation in 132 Southern school districts.
  • Black students were 100 percent of the students expelled in 77 Southern school districts, and 75 percent of the expelled students in 255 public schools.
  • It is actually Black girls who are the most severely and disproportionately affected by discipline policies and practices.


The statistics in Texas are not much better. There were 82,231 Black students suspended in Texas K-12 public schools. While Black students represent 13 percent of students in Texas school districts across the state, they comprised 31 percent of suspensions and 23 percent of expulsions. The overall picture for Texas is that Black students are suspended and expelled at rates of about two times their representation.


In the Austin Independent School District, the percentage of Blacks suspended is 22.1 percent while the percentage of Blacks enrolled is just 9.1 percent. In the Houston Independent School District, the percentage of Blacks suspended is 47.2 percent while the percentage of Blacks enrolled is 24.5 percent. In the San Antonio Independent School District, the percentage of Blacks suspended is 14 percent while the percentage of Blacks enrolled is just 6.5. In the Dallas Independent School District, the percentage of Blacks suspended is 46.2 percent while the percentage of Blacks enrolled is 24.5 percent In the Fort Worth Independent School District, the percentage of Blacks suspended is 43.4% while the percentage of Blacks enrolled is 23.2%.


These probabilities go well beyond what one would expect due to random chance. What can explain these racial disparities in the use of school discipline is two words: implicit bias, or a bias that occurs outside of our conscious awareness and control. Unfortunately many teachers, like the rest of society, have internalized negative stereotypes about certain groups of people, including Black students, which can result in a disproportionate response to misbehavior.


Some people will dismiss or minimize these concerns as simply reflecting the realities of Black students’ disproportionately bad behavior. But research shows this view does not hold true. The problem is that characterizing behavior as bad always introduces a level of subjectivity. As one study has already shown, Black students are penalized more harshly than their White peers when they engage in similar behavior, and Black students were disproportionately sanctioned for more subjective forms of misbehavior, including “disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering.”


As we start a new school year, teachers and school administrators must actively work to not allow their implicit biases to result in the disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of Black students. Research has shown that diversity education has successfully reduced implicit and explicit anti-Black biases. Texas schools should require that all teachers and school administrators enroll in an intensive prejudice reduction seminar.


Pushing Black students out of school is a powerful facilitator of the school-to-prison pipeline. The persistent racial disparities in school discipline is one of the main reasons why single-sex schools need our support. Among the many psychosocial benefits of single-sex schools is the reduction in discipline problems that often result from the low expectations and negative stereotypes of Black students. The consideration of solutions that results in removing Black students from traditional schools reflects the exasperation many Black parents feel about the treatment of their children.


We have the tools to do it and now is the time to end racial disparities in school discipline.


cokley-iupra-picture-2014About the Author:

Kevin Cokley is a professor, a Public Voices Fellow and Director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism.

This post was originally published in the San Antonio Express, Fort Worth Star, Dallas Morning News, and Houston Chronicle.



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