When It Comes to School Discipline, Black Students Don’t Stand a Chance
August 5, 2019

A new study shows that black middle school students are far less likely to receive warnings from teachers about misbehavior. The study, led by University of Illinois social work professor Kate M. Wegmann, showed that Black males were 95%(!) less likely than white males to receive verbal warnings directly from teachers, and black students of both sexes were 84% less likely to have multiple warnings given to their parents.

“Regardless of the number or frequency of their infractions, black students were less likely than their white peers to be warned about their behaviors in the classroom or in messages to their parents,” meaning they consistently had fewer opportunities to correct behaviors on their own before the consequences escalated to exclusionary punishments.

Highlights from the University of Illinois study on discipline disparities

While a lot of attention is paid to the racially-disproportionate amount of suspensions and other exclusionary disciplinary measures, this study highlights what should another key factor in the discipline reform conversation: the idea that black students aren’t even given the same opportunities to correct “misbehavior” and are quicker to receive more severe punishment for similar behaviors to their classmates.

It seems a lot of the basis for those who oppose taking action on discipline policies as a direct result of disproportionate suspension rates is around the idea that there are reasons other than prejudice or racism that somehow justify the existence of the discrepancy.

Unfortunately, that avenue occasionally leads to straight up racist characterizations of Black students as delinquents, while even the less overt justifications still seem to argue that we just have to accept that Black and brown kids are bad.

The study highlights what I consider to be the issue requiring greater reflection from all involved in reforming discipline and the way it is imposed in our schools. How are the biases of teachers, both explicit and implicit, playing a role in all discipline practices?

Understanding that the average teacher is a 42-year-old white woman, how do we reconcile the idea that students of color will be receive a fair shake as discretionary discipline policies are enforced? With 8 out of 10 teachers being white and nearly 90% of primary school teachers being women, what affect does that have on their relationships with young black students, especially boys?

We already know that as early as Pre-K, Black students are suspended at higher rates, and I’m interested in the part where it seems to because the implicit bias of teachers means they “show a tendency to more closely observe black students, and especially boys, when challenging behaviors are expected,” according to the Yale Child Study Center.

Another argument posits that we should take into account that Black students are disproportionately coming from high-poverty neighborhoods and into high-poverty schools and are more likely to be dealing with undiagnosed trauma. But, we also know that Black students receive disproportionate disciplinary action “no matter the rate of poverty at the school.”

What we are left with then, is essentially a perfect storm of obstacles for Black children in our schools to overcome. They are basically criminalized at the very moment the first enter a school building, even as a 4 or 5 year old. Then they are far less likely to have the opportunity to correct misbehaviors throughout their schooling years as well as treated differently for the same behavioral infractions of other students, and finally, they are suspended at up to four times the rate of their white peers. We know that the disparities extend to students of color with disabilities as well.

By maintaining differential consequences for behavior infractions committed by African American students vs. White students, schools can mirror racialized differences in policing and the criminal justice system, and through their role as agents of socialization, normalize such unequal systems for youth. – Kate M. Wegmann & Brittanni Smith

The focus of “discipline reform” shouldn’t be so focused on pure disparities in the raw numbers of suspensions nor on a way to “justify” the behavior of Black students, but rather on biases, prejudices, and stereotypes that serve as root causes of the continued criminalization of black children in our schools and directly lead to the school-to-prison pipeline.

We need a teaching force that is more reflective of and less likely to prejudge the students they serve and we need to address the biases that permeate current disciplinary processes and policies.