Tag Archives: school discipline

Disproportionate School Discipline Is Not Separate From Justice System Disparities

In December of 2017, the United States Civil Rights Commission held a public briefing addressing the school-to-prison pipeline, paying special attention to students of color and students with disabilities and the impact of school suspensions and expulsions. There’s a debate centering around whether bias is at play in school discipline. (You can watch the archived livestream here.)

As usual, the Commission then opened a window for written public comments. I wrote a memo to the Commission to help place the conversation about disproportionate school discipline into context: school discipline is just one manifestation of a larger and well-studied criminal justice phenomenon. (This blog posts summarizes my comments; if you want to read my full memo, click here.)

Rates of disparate school discipline for students of color and students with disabilities parallel the disparate local and national rates of arrest, incarceration, and executions of people of color and people with disabilities. It is reasonable to infer that that the identified causes of those disparities are likely to be similar to — if not the same as — the differential rates of school-based discipline.

Efforts to claim that questions about school discipline are new and mysterious ignore the wealth of available data and expertise going back as far as the 1950s. None of these questions are novel, and the feigned confusion about how we could possibly know when and where bias against students of color and students with disabilities affects the imposition of punitive discipline are disingenuous.

Within the research, it is undisputed that the juvenile and adult justice systems come into more frequent contact with people of color and people with disabilities than their white and non-disabled counterparts. It is also undisputed that the consequences at each point of the interaction are more severe for people of color and people with disabilities. Here are some examples:

Bias is notoriously difficult to document, particularly where researchers are not recording data themselves but instead relying on the records kept by those whose behavior is under scrutiny. But a study in Cook County, Illinois, for example, found that when controlling for all other variables, judges demonstrated racial bias: “We find evidence of significant interjudge disparity in the racial gap in incarceration rates, which provides support for the model in which at least some judges treat defendants differently on the basis of their race. The magnitude of this effect is substantial.”

It is impossible to find a credible study that concludes that the difficulty of ascertaining the degree to which bias influences disparities means that no further investigation would be appropriate. In fact, those who study the issue consistently conclude that the undisputed statistical disparities point to a need for deeper investigation of specific systems, more complete data collection, and additional targeted research.

An attempt to frame the very same phenomenon when it appears in schools as the result of applying unbiased policies and practices ignores decades of relevant research. Schools are integral to, not separate from, our civic experience. Every person — child and adult — who shows up in a school building also exists outside of that building and within our larger civic context, a context that includes our law enforcement and justice systems. Discussions about when and how statistical evidence of disproportionality should trigger an investigation cannot be had in a vacuum; they should, instead, be grounded in the substantial body of research and evidence outside the schoolhouse walls.

Many of those who believe that the statistical differences in student discipline can be explained away by out-of-school factors or by objectively different student behavior have been pushing to nullify a 2014 guidance letter issued jointly by the Departments of Justice and Education. That letter made clear that significant disproportionality in the administration of suspensions and expulsions could lead to a federal investigation.

Evidence of disproportionality in the administration of punitive discipline strategies — both at school and in the justice system — is not sufficient to identify bias. It is, however, a leading indicator of where bias may be found if one were to investigate. Additionally, all of the existing research shows that a targeted inquiry is the only way to determine whether bias is, or is not, the underlying cause of the disparity.

The Commission is expected to review all of the briefing materials and public comments and release a public report, as it typically does. These reports are non-binding on government agencies but may include commentary about pending legislation or suggest new guidelines. I expect that this report will make a specific recommendation about rescinding or maintaining the 2014 joint guidance package on school discipline. Where bias does lead to differential treatment, federal civil rights protections must be enforced and constitutional and statutory protections against discrimination are implicated.

The Black Lives Matter Education Platform Is Part of a Bigger Conversation

Last week, a collective of organizations engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement published two policy briefs (here and here) which together articulate an education platform. Although Black Lives Matter crystallized into a cultural force after several well-documented incidents of police violence, it has never been a single-issue movement. For many Americans, critical analyses of public schools have never lived very far away from conversations about racism, policing, and the fundamental role of government.BLM

In many education circles, these conversations became open and explicit with the introduction of  “school resource officers.” A school resource officer is an on-duty police officer assigned to a school campus. These positions ballooned after the Columbine tragedy, ostensibly to protect students in the event of another attempted school shooting. That hasn’t worked out as designed, and although there are stories of heroism, they’re dwarfed by the ongoing incidents of mass violence with student casualties. Unfortunately, the presence of school resource officers on campus has also meant that every discipline problem (even fake burping) can quickly escalate to an arrest.

And just like formal policing outside of the school gates, the unofficial policing of behavior on campus shows markers of racism and bias. Black students, both boys and girls, are disproportionately suspended and expelled. For a school, that might be the end of the story, but for a young person and their family, it’s likely just the latest in a series of disruptive encounters with agencies supposedly tasked with protecting and caring for them.

This new Black Lives Matter education platform acknowledges the central role that schools play in communities today and that they are woven into the fabric of families’ lives. Education, policing, and criminal justice are in constant interplay, and none of them function independently of the others. Some of the policy wonks among us might take issue with the particulars of the recommendations — and that’s fair — but the platform should be read in its intended context, and policy debates should be informed by an understanding of the complex relationships among these public agencies.

3 Steps New York and Other Cities Should Take to Help At-Risk Youth Reach Graduation

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new education agenda, announced last week, proposes to raise the city’s on-time graduation rate from 68 percent to 80 percent over the next ten years. A dramatic increase in high school graduation rates is a laudable goal and critical to championing equity; the devil will be in the details, which are yet to be made public. His plans to invest in pre-K and reading by 2nd grade are a critical foundation, but when it comes to keeping older students on track through high school, the mayor would do well to look to a new report released last week by the Center for Promise. Called Don’t Quit on Me, the report provides valuable insight into the role that relationships play in young people’s decisions to stay in high school. The findings point to three key considerations for any city seeking to build a plan to keep all youth on the path to graduation:

  1. Take a hard look at school discipline policies.

The study found that young people who left school were more likely to have experienced multiple adverse life experiences between ages 14 and 18, compared to youth who stayed enrolled. One of the experiences that was a top predictor of leaving school before graduation was suspension or expulsion; being suspended or expelled more than doubled the odds that a young person would not complete high school.

The link between being suspended or expelled and leaving school—consistently found in other research as well—is particularly troubling given the well-documented fact these disciplinary actions are disproportionately meted out to students from certain demographic groups. For example, in the 2009-10 school year, 17 percent of Black children in grades K-12 nationally were suspended at least once—more than three times the suspension rate of white students. The suspension rate for Black students with disabilities was even higher, at one in four (25 percent). In order to keep more students enrolled and increase equity in graduation rates, it will be critical to promote school discipline policies that create safe and productive classroom environments by employing effective alternatives to out-of-school suspension.

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