Report: 13 Southern states suspend black students at much higher rates

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania highlight 'inequities in racial discipline' in a bid to encourage reform.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Students board buses to go home at the end of the school day at Philadelphia Elementary School in Philadelphia, Miss. on Aug. 27, 2010. Black students in Southern states are suspended and expelled at a rate much higher than anywhere else in the United States, according to a new report from the University of Pennsylvania.

Black students in Southern states are suspended and expelled at a rate much higher than anywhere else in America, a new report finds.

Of the 1.2 million black students suspended from K-12 public schools across the country, 55 percent occurred in 13 Southern states, according to a report by Edward Smith and Shaun Harper, researchers at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

While public schools in those states average more black students than the rest of the country, black students were suspended or expelled at a disproportionately higher rate than black students in other states, according to this analysis of data from the 2011-12 academic year.

The report, released earlier this week, finds that black boys made up 47 percent of suspensions and 44 percent of expulsions from K-12 public schools across those 13 Southern states, while they represented only 35 percent of suspensions and 34 percent of expulsions from those schools nationally.

The initial figure of 1.2 million black student suspensions in a school year was “horrifying,” says Dr. Harper, executive director for the center and a professor at the university's Graduate School of Education. 

“But what surprised us most is that 55 percent of those suspensions occurred in just 13 states, and those states were in the South,” he adds.

In a bid to encourage reform, the authors present their results by district within each state to highlight "inequities in racial discipline."  

"Our aim is to equip anyone concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and the educational mistreatment of Black youth with numbers they can use to demand justice from school boards, educational leaders, and elected officials," they write.

Harper and Mr. Smith, who are both black men, were also both suspended as boys in school (Smith in New Jersey, Harper in Georgia).

“We both turned out all right, we’re both at Penn,” Harper says, “but that’s not the case for so many black children who get kicked out of school for largely subjective, largely nonviolent reasons.”

He adds that while working on the report, he “couldn’t help but feel for millions of black children who are affected."

In a press release, Smith said that it could take years for a student to work through the trauma and stigma of being deemed a problem. “Teachers and district leaders are signaling that you’re not worthy enough for us to invest in,” he said.

Suspensions or expulsions can have life-altering consequences for students. Such students are often perceived differently by peers and teachers, which can in turn lower academic achievement and lead to increased negative behavior. 

Summarizing other studies, Harper and Smith write in their report: “expulsions and out-of-school suspensions are strongly associated with subsequent participation in juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

The report analyzed 3,022 school districts in the 13 Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. On average, black students made up 24 percent of students in the public schools in those districts – higher than the national average – but represented 48 percent of students suspended and 49 percent of students expelled, rates twice that of other students.

In 132 of the districts, the report found, black students were suspended at a rate five times greater than that for other students, and in specific school districts, the “disproportionate impact rate” got even more dramatic.

For many schools, the suspension rate is zero, but there are also some outliers.

In some schools, like the CCAT charter school in Georgia and the Brevard Academy in North Carolina, black students represented all the school’s suspensions during the 2011-12 year, despite constituting 15.3 percent and 6.6 percent of the total student population, respectively.

Moreover, academic literature on the subject shows that black students aren’t being disciplined to disproportionate degrees because they’re committing more, or worse, offenses.

A 2002 study from Russell Skiba, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, analyzed one year of disciplinary data for urban middle schools. Professor Skiba and his colleagues found that white students were most often disciplined for objective offenses like smoking, vandalism, and obscene language, while black students were most often disciplined for more-subjective offenses like loitering, being disrespectful, and making excessive noise.

“Even the most serious of the reasons for office referrals among black students, threat, is dependent on perception of threat by the staff making the referral,” Skiba wrote.

Harper says that there are specific reasons these 13 Southern states suspend so many more black students than others – including the residual effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws that kept Southern schools segregated until the late 1960s. But, he says, the purpose of the new report was to draw attention to the issue and spur reform around the country to replace punitive disciplinary measures like suspension and expulsion with more holistic alternatives.

Ending the report with “a sincere apology,” the authors write:

While neither of us has ever suspended or expelled any student, as educators, we are participants in a system that continually disadvantages Black children, families, and communities.... [W]e will work hard to disrupt the assumptions and cultural misunderstandings that compel [school officials] to suspend and expel Black students at such outrageously high rates.”

Harper points to a 2013 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that gives teachers five scenarios – from verbal disrespect and a dress code violation to physical assault and fighting – and suggests how they could react responsively instead of punitively.

“There’s some major consensus here from people who do school discipline work that these are the alternative approaches,” Harper says. “They’re not unreasonable things.”

He adds that Thursday night in Richmond, Va., parents and members of the local NAACP chapter are meeting in response to the report.

“It’s what we wanted,” he says. “We wanted people to be able to localize the problem and then begin to ignite conversations with each other and with school leaders for change.”

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