When Schools Are Forced to Practice Race-Based Discipline

Students of color are expelled and suspended at disproportionate rates. Educators say policies banning “disparate-impact” discipline are not the answer.


The Obama administration might be disappointed to find out there’s not much support for one of its key school-discipline reform initiatives—at least not from teachers or members of the general public.

A growing body of evidence has long revealed discriminatory tendencies in the ways school districts dole out discipline. Black and Latino students are much more likely to be disciplined and suffer greater rates of in- and out-of-school suspensions. Of the 49 million students enrolled in public schools in the 2011-12 school year, close to 7 million were suspended, about half of them out of school. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, black students were suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than were white students.

Taken as a whole, white students in the U.S. account for the largest share of one-time suspensions and expulsions. Still, discrepancies emerge when considering how the numbers compare to enrollment. While black students represented 16 percent of the U.S. student population, they accounted for 32 percent of the students suspended and 42 percent of those expelled. Black students also experience the highest rate of multiple suspensions, the DOE data shows.

The discrepancies are particularly egregious in certain parts of the country. As The New York Times reported on Tuesday, a new analysis of the federal data finds that black students in 13 Southern states are suspended or expelled “at rates overwhelmingly higher than white children.” In 132 of the districts analyzed, for example, black students were suspended at rates at least five times greater than their representation in the student population.

In an effort to combat disciplinary bias, the federal government has warned every school district in the country that they face legal action if their discipline policies have a “disparate impact”—“a disproportionate and unjustified effect”—on students of a particular race.

Still, despite widespread concern about the “discipline gap,” the recommendation has sparked a good deal of backlash, including from pundits who’ve speculated that children of color will actually be the ones most harmed. The administration’s guidelines “will encourage schools to tolerate disruptive and dangerous behavior lest they have too many students of one race being punished,” wrote the education-law expert Joshua Dunn in a Fordham Institute blog post last year. “The effect will be to punish students who behave and want to learn since their education will be sabotaged by troublemakers. And the disruptive will certainly learn, and learn quickly, that their schools are now tolerating even more disruptive behavior.”

A recent Education Next poll of nearly 4,000 respondents (including oversamples of teachers, African Americans, and Hispanics) suggests that few people think the disparate-impact approach—which some have argued leads to racial quotas—is the best solution. Some of the strongest opposition seems to be from teachers, fewer than a fourth of whom support such policies, as well as those who identify as white. Thirty-five percent of teachers and 36 percent of white respondents answered that they “completely oppose” policies that prevent minorities from being expelled at higher rates, according to the poll, which surveyed Americans on education-policy issues.

The researchers administered the poll after President Obama made it a priority for teachers to look at these behaviors. The Education Next poll varied the wording of the questions to gauge whether the type of government mandating the policy—federal versus local—would have much of an effect on public opinion. It found that teachers and the general public are opposed to such policies regardless of who’s stipulating them, though they appear particularly opposed to federal policies versus those left up to the discretion of individual districts.

“There’s some general concerns that people have about federal intrusion in schools,” said Martin West, one of the Harvard public-policy researchers who analyzed the data. “My interpretation would be that teachers want to be able to make decisions about student discipline on a case-by-case basis and not have  district or federal officials looking over their shoulders.”

In both instances, African Americans appear most supportive of policies that prevent “disparate-impact” discipline.

Still, the Education Next analysis didn’t look at how a respondent’s race intersects with his or her status as a teacher, parent, or member of the general public. It’s possible, for example, that a majority of black teachers—or teachers who work in areas with high concentrations of students of color—would be more supportive of no-disparate-impact policies than teachers as a whole. And ultimately, teacher opinion on such policies may be more reflective of their perspectives on the mechanisms by which they’re mandated.

“Teachers like their autonomy based on a lot of our polling,” says Harvard’s Paul Peterson, one of the other Education Next researchers. “They don’t like merit pay, they don’t like accountability, they don’t like to be told who’s to be disciplined.”