Data suggests that racial bias is leading to disproportionate discipline for minority students, with serious long-term consequences later in life.
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The school-to-prison pipeline can impact any child, but profiling in schools means that minorities are disciplined at a disproportionate rate and severity, with major consequences to their long-term well-being.

Of all the K-12 students, minority children are by far the most likely to interact with law enforcement during their schooling years, largely due to the fact that they are much more likely to be disciplined, and disciplined severely, than their white peers who break the same rules.

As we’ve outlined in our review of the school-to-prison pipeline, this makes those students significantly more likely to enter the criminal justice system as adults later in life.

Racial profiling throughout the ages

Considering schools in the United States weren’t even fully segregated until 1970, racial profiling in schools isn’t difficult to imagine.

Racial bias leading to disproportionate punishment began popping up in several major studies in the late ‘90s and 2000s, which found time and time again that minority children were being disciplined unequally by a variety of measures.


More recent research has confirmed that racial profiling of students is still extremely common. Over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests are Hispanic or Black, according to the findings of a 2010 EdWeek report. And a 2010 survey found that Black students are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

Same crime, different time

Minority children aren’t just more likely to be punished – they are more likely to be punished than a white child who expresses the same behavior and commits the same infractions.

A 2008 University of Pittsburgh study called “Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in School Discipline among U.S. High School Students” concluded that the differences between the suspension and expulsion rates were not linked to differences in behavior, and that there was no information to indicate that Black students acted out more than White students. Instead, they found that Black students were being referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. The conclusion was that racial bias was behind the statistical differences.

Further, the discrepancy in punishment of minority children in North Carolina was outlined in a 2012 analysis conducted by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. It was found that Black students were suspended eight times higher for cell phone use, six times higher for dress code violations, two times higher for disruptive behavior and 10 times higher for displays of affection.

These punishments have become more common and more severe in the past decade due to the rise of zero tolerance policies, which give school faculty more discretion in giving suspensions and expulsions.

Between 1972 and 2009, the number of secondary school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year increased about 40 percent, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

Recognizing the issue as immoral and illegal

Suspending, expelling and arresting minority students at a higher rate than their peers is not only a moral crime but a legal crime as well.

Schools are required to follow Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race. So punishing minorities more frequently than peers is actually illegal, but is also extremely difficult to prove on a case-by-case basis.

Nonetheless, a 2014 joint letter to all school districts from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education not only acknowledged racial bias in schools but also outlined how schools can improve upon the issue in order to avoid the serious consequences these punishments have on minority children later in life.

The impacts of disproportionately punishing minorities

The disparities in discipline based upon race mirrors the disparities in the demographics of our adult prison population. And research tells us that this is far from a coincidence.

"And lower expectations leads to differential treatment, negative interaction and harsher punishment."

The racial bias present in K-12 schools leads teachers to have lower expectations of minority students, a 2007 analysis in the Journal of Educational Psychology concluded. And lower expectations leads to differential treatment, negative interaction and harsher punishment. All of these things lessen the quality of education for minority children and make them more likely to disengage from the education system.

In particular, discipline methods like suspension have been linked to making children more likely to drop out. Students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade than students who have never been. Consequently, dropping out of school makes a student three times more likely to be incarcerated later in life.

Our take

Disciplining minority children more than their white peers perpetuates the cycle that feeds minority adults into prison at a disproportionate rate.

Discrepancies in the punishment of minority students must be recognized as a national issue in order to prevent racial bias in K-12 and to promote equal treatment in the classroom.

On the back end, harsh punishment tactics, like zero tolerance policies, must be re-evaluated because they are the means through which racial bias results in devastating long-term consequences for young children.


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Posted 08.08.2016 - 03:00 pm EDT