This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The document and the event were separated by 100 years, but each spoke with equal clarity and urgency to the principles of liberty, equality and opportunity to which we aspire as a nation. There is perhaps no more important institution in keeping us on this path than the public education system. Yet stark differences in the quality of education available to students of different races persist and demean us all.
The extent to which African-Americans are forced out of the classroom through expulsion or suspension is one of the most vivid manifestations of these divides. The Department of Education’s most recent data sample shows that African-American students are 3.5 times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers.
Many schools inappropriately utilize police or security to discipline students, rather than depending on educators to do so. This practice leads to absurd results, such as when school police in Texas issued a $364 citation to a 14-year-old student with Asperger’s syndrome for cursing in the classroom. Shockingly, a 6-year-old student was handcuffed and taken to a police station after she had a temper tantrum in her Milledgeville, Ga., school.
Sadly, race also plays a prominent role in unwarranted police contacts with students — 42 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 35 percent of students arrested in school are African-American.
You might think that the alarming numbers of African-American students being excluded from schools and the reliance on security or law enforcement in schools are the unfortunate, natural results of worsening student behavior. You would be wrong. Research suggests that systemic problems, such as racial bias, affect exclusionary discipline, rather than student misbehavior. In fact, national trend data indicate that the total rate of self-reported school-based offenses has decreased year after year, while rates of exclusionary discipline have soared dramatically and disproportionately. African-American students bear the brunt of this pernicious pattern.
Alarmingly, race has been demonstrated to be a predictive factor in determining who gets disciplined, for what conduct and how severely. The most comprehensive study conducted to date, which analyzed data from every seventh-grade student in Texas public schools for three years, isolated race from 83 variables and found that African-American students were more likely to be disciplined at school than “otherwise identical white and Hispanic students.”
Multiple studies have found that African-American students are typically punished for “subjective” offenses, such as disrespect, while white students are disciplined for “objective” offenses, like alcohol possession. And African-American students are punished more harshly than other students, even when committing the same offense. We cannot continue to tolerate these results.
The justification frequently offered for the high rates of suspension and expulsion of students and misuse of security and police is school safety, but these practices do not make our schools safer. The American Psychological Association has found that “zero tolerance” and other harsh disciplinary approaches do not improve school safety.
When students are removed from the learning environment through suspension or expulsion, they are more likely to be held back a grade, become involved with the criminal justice system or drop out of school. Those who are arrested are twice as likely to drop out. Clearly, nobody benefits from this approach.
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, 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 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. Dick 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 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 New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. This column was first published by The Root.