School suspensions: Does racial bias feed the school-to-prison pipeline?

Rocketing school suspensions may feed the school-to-prison pipeline – and even violate civil rights.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Oakland High School sophomore Barry Williams answers a question from instructor Tiago Robinson during the Manhood Development Program at Oakland High School on March 12 in Oakland, California. This is the cover story in the Apr. 1 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Two students set off fire alarms in the same school district. One of them, an African-American kindergartner, is suspended for five days; the other, a white ninth-grader, is suspended for one day.

•An African-American high-schooler is suspended for a day for using a cellphone and an iPod in class. In the same school, a white student with a similar disciplinary history gets detention for using headphones.

•Two middle-schoolers push each other; the white student receives a three-day, in-school suspension, while the native American student is arrested and suspended, out of school, for 10 days.

Civil rights groups have been saying for years that school discipline is not meted out fairly, citing examples like these reported last year from around the country by the US Department of Education.

High rates of suspensions and expulsions for certain groups – particularly African-Americans, Hispanics, and those with disabilities – are evident in data gathered nationally by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Data from 72,000 American public schools in the 2009-10 school year, for example, show that while African-Americans make up 18 percent of the students in this large sample, they account for 46 percent of students suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of students arrested on campus.

White students, by contrast, represent 29 percent of multiple suspensions and 33 percent of expulsions – but 51 percent of the students.

School leaders have to maintain a safe environment for learning, and about 4 in 10 teachers and administrators surveyed recently by Education Week said out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are an effective way to do that. Some expulsions have even been mandated by law, particularly when a student brings a gun to school.

Yet increasingly, "we're seeing suspensions for things that used to be considered typical adolescent behavior and were dealt with in less harsh ways within the school system," says Jim Eichner, managing director of programs for the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group in Washington.

While opinions differ about whether student behavior has become more disruptive or dangerous, the number of suspensions has grown dramatically in recent decades.

In 1976, nearly 1.8 million students were suspended – 4 percent of all public-school students; by 2006, the number of students suspended had nearly doubled to 3.3 million, about 7 percent of all students, according to Department of Education data.

In addition to the suspensions, 102,000 students were expelled – removed from school for the remainder of the year or longer – in 2006.

Nearly two decades of a "zero tolerance" mentality has contributed dramatically to a spike in exclusionary discipline that involves racial disparities, youth and civil rights advocates say. It has led to what they call a "school-to-prison pipeline," and the implications of this unfair, even draconian, disciplinary system are enormous, they say.

National goals to prepare more students for college and careers can't be met if so many students continue to miss out on school, a growing number of educators and lawmakers add – and society will pay down the road for more jobless and incarcerated young people.

A microcosm of that problem was captured in a groundbreaking 2011 Texas study that tracked more than 1 million students for six years. "Breaking Schools' Rules," by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York, found that nearly 6 in 10 students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once between Grades 7 and 12. But the removals were mandated by law in only 3 percent of those cases. And 31 percent of students suspended or expelled more than once for discretionary reasons repeated a grade – twice the rate of similar students not suspended or expelled. Of the 15 percent of students suspended or expelled 11 or more times, only 4 in 10 graduated within one to three years of their expected graduation date.

When a lot of kids get suspended – more than 70 percent in some schools – "we've cheapened the deterrent," Mr. Eichner says. And kids "don't internalize that they did something wrong" when they feel discipline is unfair – either because it's for minor offenses or it seems racially biased.

Precious Brazel, for one, doesn't think her suspension was fair, and she offers an example of how suspensions may not resolve problems between students and authority figures.

The African-American 10th-grader at Castle­mont High School in Oakland, Calif., acknowledges it was against the rules to have her kick scooter on campus. But she says the principal saw her with it and told her it was OK as long as she didn't ride it. Soon after, she got into an argument with a security guard over the scooter.

When the guard tried to take it away, "it hit her in the knee and she got upset," Precious says. The security guard also accused Precious of "cussing her out" – and Precious admits cursing, but not at the guard.

After administrators heard both sides, they sent Precious home for two days. She says it didn't cause her to think she needed to change her behavior in the future, but rather, "it made me disrespect [the security guard] more, because she was rude to me."

Discipline a civil rights violation?

In the past four years, OCR has received more than 1,250 complaints of civil rights violations involving school discipline. It has also launched 20 compliance reviews – broad scale investigations of school systems – to probe significant racial disparities in discipline rates.

Three of those reviews have resulted in voluntary plans to reduce suspensions overall and disproportionately high discipline rates for certain groups – most notably a landmark effort in California's Oakland Unified School District. (See the Monitor's profile of that program.)

Skeptics of OCR's focus on racial data say it could have unintended consequences.

In the view of Hans Bader, senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., suspensions largely "reflect actual infraction rates." So the implication that rates for certain groups should be reduced until they are closer to those of other groups sounds like racial quotas, he says.

OCR's investigation into racial disparities isn't a problem in and of itself, says Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, but "you have to think about how educators and administrators are going to respond to what they see as signals out of the federal government.... If [they] perceive the policy to be, 'Oh, you just can't suspend kids, particularly African-American kids,' that's not the response you would want."

That could end up creating more disruption for students of color, who report higher rates of feeling unsafe in school than their white counterparts, Professor Arum says. But if school districts rethink discipline more holistically, replacing zero tolerance with more discretion for educators, that would be a good outcome, he says.

The goal is not to force districts to make discipline rates proportional by race, Department of Education officials say, but the numbers can spark a closer look to see if a system is equitable.

"Our encouragement that schools focus more thoughtfully on the use of exclusionary discipline practices is not intended to undermine appropriate use of discipline as a tool to make schools safe and conducive to learning," says Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary of Education for civil rights.

The Education Department offers grants and technical assistance to help teachers and administrators manage behavior more effectively and consider alternative steps before a student is suspended. One approach it advocates is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a schoolwide system to acknowledge good behavior and discourage problem behavior. For students with the biggest behavior challenges, it sets up individual support plans.

Zero tolerance feeds school-to-prison pipeline

Many people might assume the racial breakdown of discipline simply reflects higher rates of misbehavior by some groups of students, perhaps explained by factors such as poverty.

Research has shown that's not an adequate explanation. "There's quite a bit of literature that supports the finding that it's not just about kids behaving badly," says Russell Skiba, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and an expert on school violence and discipline.

His recent study of discipline data in one Midwestern state found that even after controlling for types of student behavior and poverty, African-Americans still had 1.5 times higher rates of suspension or expulsion than whites did.

Characteristics of the schools themselves made a big difference. For instance, students in schools with a high proportion of black students (not just urban, but suburban schools as well) were nearly six times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than students in schools with low black populations, the study found.

Also, in schools where the principal supported alternatives to suspensions, the racial disparity in discipline could be predicted to be much less than in schools where the principal had a traditional reliance on suspensions.

Discipline is not always a matter of choice. Many observers trace today's high rate of suspensions and expulsions back to the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, and the zero-tolerance policies in its wake. The law mandated at least a one-year expulsion for students who possessed a firearm in school, but many states and districts went on to impose tough penalties for other weapons, violence, drugs, alcohol, and even minor behaviors deemed disruptive.

Many schools also increased their relationship with police in response to incidents such as the 1999 Columbine massacre.

Now, some advocacy groups say, the degree to which schools call on police to deal with student behavior has resulted in a school-to-prison pipeline – with young people flowing into the criminal-justice system because of school-based offenses. In October, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit accusing local, county, and state officials in Meridian, Miss., of operating such a pipeline, routinely violating children's rights. Students as young as 10 – particularly African-Americans and children with disabilities – were allegedly arrested for minor issues including rudeness to a teacher and tardiness. They were held for days without a probable-cause hearing, the suit claims, and if they were on probation, they would automatically be sent to juvenile jail if suspended. Officials named in the suit denied the allegations.

In a separate action, the Department of Justice and the Meridian Public School District entered a consent decree March 22 that, if approved by a federal court, would amend a longstanding desegregation decree. It would limit exclusionary discipline, prohibit law enforcement from being involved if behaviors can be handled appropriately in school, boost training and due process procedures, and require monitoring of discipline data to identify and address racial disparities.

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights considered testimony about the school-to-prison pipeline – and how some communities are trying to reverse it – at a hearing in December.

Newtown shooting results in push for cops

The claims of a school-to-prison pipeline are unfair, countered Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, in written testimony. In the past two decades, he noted, school crime as well as juvenile arrests have declined at the same time that schools have expanded the use of resource officers – typically armed police who are trained to work with students.

The hearing was an encouraging moment for advocates who want less police involvement in school discipline. But the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., happened two days later. The resulting calls for more cops in schools "is a very strong countervailing force to our reform efforts," says Eichner.

Yet civil rights groups have seen pockets of progress.

Last year, Colorado passed the Smart School Discipline Bill, which eliminates mandatory suspensions and expulsions for anything except carrying a firearm. A new law in Massachusetts says students can no longer be permanently excluded from school, and gives them the right to alternative education if they are suspended for more than 10 days, something that not all districts had provided. It also requires schools to work with students to try to improve their behavior before excluding them from school.

Several other states have passed or are considering similar laws.

Cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia have also revised discipline policies. In Denver, the Advancement Project says new policies matching minor offenses with less severe discipline led to a 38 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions and a 52 percent drop in referrals to law enforcement between 2003 and 2009, and the graduation rate rose 30 percent.

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