DOE Study Shows Black Students Face Harshest Discipline in Public Schools

Every day, SPLC attorneys see how school districts are cutting short the futures of countless students through harsh, “zero-tolerance” policies.

Now, a new U.S. Department of Education (DOE) study reveals what we have known for some time. It found that black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

For far too many children of color, the path to prison begins in underfunded schools that rely on zero-tolerance policies such as suspensions and arrests for minor, nonviolent misbehavior. In school districts that practice zero tolerance, black and Hispanic students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled. 

These policies don’t help our communities. They only push students out of the classroom and into a juvenile justice system that criminalizes them for typical adolescent behavior. This misguided approach to school discipline devastates our communities by driving up student dropout rates. Here are a few examples:

  • In Hinds County, Miss., a 10th-grade boy, who was a good student with dreams of a collegiate basketball scholarship, was expelled for throwing a penny that landed on his school bus driver. 


  • In Durham, N.C., a teacher removed a Hispanic boy from class in response to an allegation of a minor discipline infraction. The teacher forcibly pushed the student against a wall and suggested that he “go back to his own country.”


  • In Mobile, Ala., six students ranging from 13 to 18 years of age collectively missed more than 445 school days for minor misbehavior such as un-tucked shirts, tardiness and failing to carry school identification.


  • In Birmingham, Ala., students are regularly pepper-sprayed for typical adolescent behavior. SPLC research shows that nearly 200 students have been sprayed during the past five years. 


The outlook is even worse for students of color with disabilities. The DOE study reveals that while students with disabilities make up only 12 percent of the student body, they account for 70 percent of those subjected to physical restraints. In one school year, for example, the Louisiana Recovery School District in New Orleans suspended 26.8 percent of all students with disabilities. 

The juvenile justice system often overlooks misbehavior in affluent school districts, labeling it as “typical adolescent rebellion.” Yet, the same behavior by a student in a poor, minority school district is likely to be viewed as “criminal behavior” that warrants harsh consequences such as suspension, expulsion and, in many cases, arrest. Reversing this trend will require a change in the way schools approach discipline.

There are more effective methods of school discipline than these unforgiving zero-tolerance policies. Schools should focus on approaches backed by evidence of success, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which provide students with positive social skills that reduce the need for suspension and expulsion. It’s time for schools to invest in approaches that our children need to succeed and end the era of zero tolerance. Too many futures have already been cut short.