Other Voices

End the racial disparities in use of school discipline

There is a conspiracy against black children in our schools.

I’m not suggesting shadowy figures are plotting how they can harm black students. I’m saying that black students are treated differently and disciplined disproportionately.

The harsh truth is that teachers’ perceptions and subsequent reactions to students’ bad behavior, especially the perceptions and reactions of some white teachers, are often affected by the race of the students.

Black students do not, as a general rule, receive the benefit of the doubt in their bad or questionable behavior, whereas other students do. This lack of consistency essentially condemns black students’ behavior.

The truth is in the numbers.

A recent report found that black students received disproportionately higher rates of suspension and expulsion in 13 southern states, including Texas.

The findings, although not surprising to many people like myself who have studied racial disparities in school discipline, are nonetheless alarming:

▪ 1.2 million black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in one academic year.

▪ 55 percent of the suspensions and 50 percent of expulsions occurred in 13 southern states.

▪ Black students were suspended at rates at least five times as high as their representation in 132 southern school districts.

▪ Black students comprised 100 percent of the students expelled in 77 southern school districts and 75 percent of the expelled students in 255 public schools.

▪ Black girls are the most severely and disproportionately affected by discipline policies and practices.

The statistics in Texas are not much better. There were 82,231 black students suspended in Texas K-12 public schools.

Although black students represent 13 percent of students in Texas school districts, they comprised 31 percent of suspensions and 23 percent of expulsions.

The overall picture for Texas is that black students are suspended and expelled at rates of about two times their representation.

In the Fort Worth school district, the percentage of blacks suspended is 43.4 percent while the percentage of blacks enrolled is 23.2 percent.

In the Dallas school district, the percentage of blacks suspended is 46.2 percent while the percentage of blacks enrolled is 24.5 percent.

These statistics go well beyond what one would expect from random chance.

Two words can explain these racial disparities in school discipline: implicit bias, or a bias that occurs outside of our conscious awareness and control.

Unfortunately, many teachers, like the rest of society, have internalized negative stereotypes about certain groups of people, including black students, which can result in a disproportionate response to misbehavior.

Some people dismiss or minimize these concerns as simply reflecting the realities of black students’ disproportionately bad behavior. But research shows that this does not hold true.

The problem is that characterizing behavior as bad always introduces a level of subjectivity.

As one study has shown, black students are penalized more harshly than their white peers when they engage in similar behavior, and black students were disproportionately sanctioned for more subjective forms of misbehavior including “disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering.”

As we start a new school year, teachers and school administrators must actively work to not allow their implicit biases to result in the disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of black students.

Research has shown that diversity education has successfully reduced implicit and explicit anti-black biases. Texas schools should require all teachers and school administrators to enroll in an intensive prejudice reduction seminar.

We have the tools to do it, and now is the time to end racial disparities in school discipline.

Kevin Cokley is a professor, a Public Voices Fellow and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.