Skip to main content Accessibility

Report highlights racial disparities in school discipline – once again

Suspensions are just one of the ways schools are meting out shockingly cruel punishments for minor school infractions.

With each new study, it becomes even clearer that harsh school discipline policies are not only outrageously discriminatory toward African-American children but highly destructive to our country.

Last week, the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania added new research to the growing body of evidence.

It found that across 13 Southern states, black children account for roughly half of all suspensions and expulsions – even though they represent less than a quarter of the students in public school.

In 132 of the school districts in those states, black children were at least five times as likely as white children to be suspended.

As we’ve learned, suspensions are just one of the ways schools are meting out shockingly cruel punishments to vulnerable children for doing the normal things that children do. Many children are hauled into court and thrown into jail cells simply for breaking school rules – often with no due process.

In our work, we see the real-life results of such practices – and they’re devastating.

We’ve represented children across the Deep South who were shackled for hours at a time in school, sprayed with chemical weapons, tossed into jail for offenses such as throwing a penny on a bus or being in the hall without a pass, and more. One child’s arm was broken by a sheriff’s deputy who restrained him in school.

Reacting to an investigation we launched in Meridian, Mississippi, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed suit to stop what local police called the “taxi service” from school to the juvenile lockup. The DOJ said that children – like one girl locked up for a dress code violation – were being incarcerated so “arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.”

Once children are pushed into this school-to-prison pipeline, they fall behind in their schoolwork, they’re stigmatized, they’re more likely to drop out, and they’re more likely to end up in jail or prison. According to the National Academy of Sciences, African-American men under 35 who failed to finish high school are now more likely to be incarcerated than employed.

Even when jail is not a part of the equation, severe school discipline can be life-changing.

In Mobile, Alabama, our client M.R. was suspended in February 2010 for the remainder of the semester for being late to lunch, and then had to repeat the ninth grade. Many others were suspended for months at a time for trivial offenses like having untucked shirts or wearing the wrong color shoes. One high school principal suspended more than 90 students in 2013 for school uniform violations.

It’s abundantly clear that it’s not just the “bad kids” who are suspended or expelled. One of the University of Pennsylvania report’s authors told National Public Radio that “[b]lack kids on the whole are suspended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with safety.”

As the report notes, earlier studies have found that black children “are most often disciplined for being disrespectful and threatening, loitering and excessive noise, whereas their white schoolmates are likelier to be referred to school discipline officers for less subjective offenses (i.e., smoking, leaving school without permission, vandalism, and obscene language).”

The report urges educators to recognize the implicit racial bias – as well as the racist policies – creating this disparity.

Fortunately, federal officials are finally recognizing the role suspensions and expulsions play in the school-to-prison pipeline. Last year, the departments of Education and Justice offered guidance to help school officials find better, more productive ways to reach children.

Our work also has helped bring changes to some Deep South school districts.

In Mobile, for example, a 2013 settlement agreement with the school system has already resulted in a nearly 75 percent reduction in the number of academic days lost to suspension. In Meridian, the U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit sparked by our investigation resulted in two settlement agreements this year – one with the city and one with the state – that will help prevent students from being needlessly pushed out and arrested.

Plus, our Teaching Tolerance project, which reaches hundreds of thousands of educators, has written extensively about the problems and solutions.

But there is much work ahead.

With more than 14,000 school districts in the United States, legal action is not enough. The entire education community must embrace change. 

And, while the school-to-prison pipeline is a crisis for children of every race all across the country, nowhere is change more necessary than in the Deep South, where Jim Crow continues to cast a long shadow.