It has long ago been clear that the use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of harsh school discipline does little to help children succeed in school and in life. Far too many kids, regardless of background, are suspended and expelled from school. Children from poor and minority households are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. And more often than not, the underlying reasons for such discipline have little to do with violent behavior. For young black men, in particular, the consequences of out-of-school suspensions, especially those meted out by teachers and leaders in the schools surrounding our poorest neighborhoods, is absolutely dire: Every suspension puts them closer onto the path to poverty and prison. Which, in turn, fuels the poverty that that mires the very communities in which they live — and the schools are located. 

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngIn this latest adaptation from his new book, from his new book, The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It, Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman focuses on how school discipline policies give far too much leeway to adults in schools to make decisions — and wrecks havoc on the lives of the young black men in their charge. Read, consider, offer thoughts, and take action. And don’t forget to buy the book.

Black students are “pushed out” by means of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions. In elementary and secondary school, out-of-school suspensions are a sensitive predicator of a student’s future failure to complete high school with a regular diploma. One authoritative study found that students punished with out-of-school suspensions were three times as likely not to finish high school as those students who were not suspended.[i] According to the most recently available national survey by the U.S. Department of Education (2006), an extraordinary 19% of all young black men were suspended from school that year. Out-of-school suspension rates for young Latino and men were much less than half that.

These racial disparities in the application of school discipline policies are visible early on. Back in 2005, Walter Gilliam of Yale University established that in many cases prekindergarten suspension and expulsion rates for male Black children are extremely high and not wholly attributable to the behavior of those children. They are, in large part, he finds an artifact of the attitudes and expectations of the teachers of those three- and four-year-old children, a finding confirmed by the fact that professional development for these teachers significantly lowers suspension and expulsion rates for their male Black students.

The Justice Center of the Council of State Governments and the Public Policy Research Institute has published a study entitled Breaking School Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. The study, which focused on the public school careers of seventh-graders in Texas found that 83 percent of young black men had at least one discretionary violation during their secondary school career (compared to 59 percent rate for non-Hispanic white students), but mandatory disciplinary actions were invoked at similar rates for black and white students. The difference between discretionary and mandatory actions, in the study’s vocabulary, is that the latter are based on regulated procedures and policies, set by the state, while the former are based on locally determined procedures and policies which, in general, have few if any safeguards against arbitrariness.

In other words, the Justice Center documented a natural experiment similar to that of drug abuse arrests: given more or less equal propensities to come afoul of objective rules (“mandatory actions”), public secondary school teachers and administrators use their discretion at the school level to punish black students nearly a third more often than both Latino and white students, and young black men much more often yet.

These suspensions lead to severe consequences for the educational careers of young black men students in Texas. According to the study: “A student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was twice as likely to repeat his or her grade compared to a student with the same characteristics, attending a similar school, who had not been suspended or expelled”. Further, “a student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year,” and so into the criminal justice system later. (Note that these are the consequences, in the main, of “discretionary,” that is, unregulated, actions by local school personnel.)

Young black men who were subjected to discretionary suspensions by local school personnel were put on a path to incarceration. More than one-third of the cohort came into contact with the state’s juvenile justice system, only a slightly lower number than the number of male Black adults incarcerated in Texas. Being “known to the police” increases the chances that a person will be arrested. It is always easier to round up the usual suspects. That is why they are the usual suspects.

The national percentages for out-of-school suspensions were 19 percent for young black men, 7 percent for young white men, and 9 percent for young Latino men. Projecting on the basis of the national Latino numbers (because of the similarity of family economic status) would give us a figure of 400,000 excess Black male suspensions each year in the United States. Working from the Texas data, there is an excess of 250,000. Between the two, a conservative estimate would be 300,000 young black men punished with out-of-school suspensions each year, who would not have been removed from the classroom if they weren’t black.

Assuming that most suspensions are in secondary school, and counting six years of secondary school with a seven-percent chance of being suspended each year, it is likely that on a national basis Black male students have more than a 40 percent chance of out-of-school suspension for racial reasons during their secondary school careers. This happens to be approximately the percentage of young black men dropouts who might expect to experience incarceration as young adults.

Out-of-school suspension ratios at the district level vary from approximately 8-to-1 in Newark and Atlanta (and 6-to-1 in two other Atlanta metropolitan area districts) down to less than twice the percentage of young black men compared to male counterparts given these punishments in districts like Boston. Are young black men four times as well-behaved in Boston as in Atlanta?  The issue is one of district policies.

This push-out of black children could be ended by school district administrators any afternoon they chose to do so. Doing so might well increase the number of young black men with high school diplomas by a quarter of a million or more each year

[i] Teachers College Record, Volume 87 Number 3, 1986, p. 356-373