Suspended Once, Judged Forever: The Impacts of Racial Disparities in School Discipline
As Black and White people navigate the criminal justice system, they are often treated in quite different ways. Brock Turner (White) and Cory Batey (Black) were both 19-year-old college athletes when they raped unconscious women on campus. Corey Batey was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison, while Brock Turner was sentenced to 6 months in jail and was released after 3 months with 3 years of probation. But racial disparities in punishment emerge much earlier than in criminal trials. The roots of such disparities originate in schools and spread insidiously over time.
According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, during the 2015-2016 school year, Black students were 3.6 times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions in comparison to their White peers. Even as early as preschool, Black students were 2.1 times more likely to be suspended than White students, which corresponds to 1,801 suspended Black preschoolers.
It would seem reasonable to assume that school suspension records are an objective marker of a student’s behavior, a record of students’ decisions and the consequences of their actions. If so, it would follow that Black students misbehave more than White students. In an ideal world, perhaps suspensions would indicate something meaningful about a student. However, at present, suspensions aren’t race neutral. Black students are more likely to be suspended than White students for the same actions, and this bias contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, the systemic manner in which Black students are pushed out of the education system and towards incarceration.
As an example, many students, particularly those who need extra support in the classroom—such as those with ADHD— had trouble staying focused during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grace, a Black student with ADHD in Michigan, was not merely suspended for skipping classes but was sent to a juvenile detention center because skipping class was a parole violation. Already part of the justice system, there was little room for leniency. Meanwhile, at my brother’s predominantly-White high school for students with ADHD and other psychological conditions that make mainstream schooling difficult, students who missed class were asked to Zoom in and do work on the weekends. After parents complained about how stressed-out the students were, required coursework was cut in half. These students behaved similarly, yet this experience will follow Grace psychologically and on her record, whereas for students at my brother’s high school, it wasn’t a big deal. What differs between these students is race and resources.
Although this example demonstrates outcomes for students from different schools with different resources, racial disparities in discipline are also seen within the same school. For instance, an assessment of discipline records in Indiana revealed that racial disparities in discipline are seen for only some forms of misbehavior. When the definition of the misbehavior is clearly identifiable, such as “drug possession” or “weapon possession,” racial disparities in discipline are small. If a student is on campus with drugs or a gun, the behavior and subsequent consequences are straightforward.
However, for misbehaviors such as “disrespect,” “insubordination,” or “classroom disruption,” the bounds of what constitutes the offending behavior is much less clear. Imagine that a student disagrees with some of the class content and speaks up after the discussion has seemingly ended. For a White student, teachers could interpret this behavior as critically engaging with the material, and the student might be praised for bringing up a counterpoint and taking an active role in the learning process. For a Black student, teachers might interpret the same behavior as speaking out of turn and being disrespectful. Similarly, imagine that a student is having trouble concentrating and staying seated during class. A White student may be seen as having a bad day, but for a Black student, the same behavior could be interpreted as a sign that they are uninterested in school and should be removed from the classroom so as not to distract the other students.
When the cause of a behavior is ambiguous, people are more likely to rely upon stereotypes to interpret the action. School staff are then left to define these behaviors based on their own understanding and experiences, and as a result, they can hold students to different standards of behavior as they see fit. Even if this process is unconscious rather than intentional, it has very real and disparate impacts for the affected students.
Most research that has demonstrated the disproportionate discipline administered to Black students has relied on school records. But this approach leaves open the possibility that school staff’s disciplinary decisions are fair and that Black students are, in fact, misbehaving more, explaining the disproportionate discipline. To test whether racial bias causes racial disparities in discipline, social psychologists Jason Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt developed a method in which teachers read about a student who misbehaved twice (classroom disruption and insubordination) and then rated how severely they would endorse discipline for the student. Importantly, the name of the student was either a White sounding name like Greg or a Black sounding name like Darnell, so the only difference between the two stories that participants read was the perceived race of the student. Thus, any differences in discipline severity must be due to whether the student was perceived to be White or Black as opposed to aspects of the situation or misbehavior.
Teachers didn’t differ in how severely they would endorse discipline for White and Black students after a single misbehavior. But after a student misbehaved twice, teachers escalated their responses towards Black students and endorsed more severe discipline for them as compared to White students. In a sample of assistant principals from one large school district, we found that assistant principals endorsed greater discipline severity for Black students even after a single misbehavior. This over-punishment among teachers and assistant principals was due to them being more likely to perceive the Black student as a troublemaker. They viewed Black students differently, and this perception was related to the discipline they endorsed.
Access to education is crucial for many traditional markers of success including economic advancement and financial security. For each suspension a student receives, he or she loses the opportunity to learn in their classes. And, it becomes even more difficult for students who are already falling behind to catch up.
Additionally, Black students are more likely to be referred to law enforcement at their schools, perhaps because there are more security guards and law enforcement officers at schools with larger Black populations. After discriminant policing practices bring the student to court, prosecutors point to the students’ disciplinary records and other school records as an indication that there is a history of misbehavior and the student is a troublemaker. In doing so, extra weight is being given to records that are more likely to document the behavior of Black students, while other students who perform similar actions have a clean record. These biases compound across each disciplinary interaction, propelling disproportionately more Black students towards incarceration as many of their White classmates prepare for college.
Given that we use public resources for schools and require kids to be in class, education may seem like a right. However, in practice, considering how Black bodies are treated in the classroom, education is better described as a privilege. Reducing racial disparities in discipline are essential to help Black students fully experience the opportunities education can afford to them.
For Further reading
Okonofua, J. A., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2015). Two strikes: Race and the disciplining of young students. Psychological science, 26(5), 617-624.
Jarvis, S. N., & Okonofua, J. A. (2020). School deferred: When bias affects school leaders. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(4), 492-498. https://www.propublica.org/article/a-teenager-didnt-do-her-online-school...
Eberhardt, J. L. (2020). Biased: Uncovering the hidden prejudice that shapes what we see, think, and do. Penguin Books.
Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. The New Press.
Rausch, M. K., & Skiba, R. (2004). Disproportionality in School Discipline among Minority Students in Indiana: Description and Analysis. Children Left Behind Policy Briefs. Supplementary Analysis 2-A. Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University.
Shoshana N. Jarvis is a doctoral student in the Management of Organizations group at the Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley.