When it comes to discussions about what to do about traditional school discipline, they usually go like this. First comes more and more data showing that black children (as well as others from poor and minority households) are the ones most-likely to be targeted for out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school arrests, and referrals to juvenile courts. Then comes additional evidence beyond all doubt shows that overuse of harsh school discipline harms the futures of children, especially young black men and women. Lastly, despite all of this evidence, traditionalists and even some reformers continue to ignore the data and evidence (or worse, try to argue that it is meaningless), arguing that the problem lies either with the children or their families or even the man on the moon.
So you can expect the report released this week by University of Pennsylvania’s Center on the Study of Race and Equity in Education to start off this usual pattern of discussion once again. Which is unfortunate. Because the Penn State study should instead force reformers and traditionalists to agree at least on one thing: It’s time to ditch the overuse of harsh school discipline once and for all.
Thanks in part to the efforts of the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, more states and districts are taking some positive steps toward restricting how suspensions and other traditional discipline approaches are used in schools. In Illinois, legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner enacted Senate Bill 100, which requires schools and districts to only use out-of-school suspensions after restorative justice and other approaches have been used. Meanwhile a video released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union showing a Kenton County, Ky., school police officer handcuffing an eight-year-old kid in special ed once again cast light on how American public education has escalated overuse of harsh discipline by using law enforcement to deal with behavioral issues that should be handled by teachers and school leaders.
But as a series of recent reports have shown, far too many states and districts are damaging the futures of children with practices that range from educational malpractice to criminal abuse. As a Penn State University professor, David Ramey, detailed in a study published last month in Sociology of Education, black children are more-likely than white peers to be suspended, expelled, and even sent to jail for the same acts of misbehavior; white children, on the other hand, are more-likely to be referred to psychologists and other medical professionals. Considering that nearly all suspensions are meted out for minor issues such as disruptive behavior (and not because of acts of violence, drug abuse, or weapons possession), this almost always means that black children are being dealt harshly by adults in situations in which white peers are let off the hook.
None of this is surprising. After all, John Wallace of University of Pittsburgh showed in a 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts. As both the American Psychological Association and Russell Skiba of Indiana University have determined, young black men are also viewed by teachers and school leaders as being older, less-innocent, and greater troublemakers than white counterparts. Just as importantly, data on school discipline bears out what Vanderbilt University scholar Daniel J. Reschly’s determined eight years ago on the matter of overlabeling of kids as special ed: Adults in schools end up labeling certain groups of students as troublemakers because they think they are destined to end up that way.
Which makes Penn’s latest evidence of overuse of suspensions against black children not shocking at all. But the data should outrage all of us anyway.
Culling through federal Office for Civil Rights data for 3,022 districts in 13 southern states, researchers Edward J. Smith and Shaun R. Harper determined that black kids were far more-likely to be suspended at more-disproportionate levels than white peers. Black children accounted for 48 percent of all children suspended one or more times in 2011-2012 even though they made up just 24 percent of enrollment. Black children accounted for all of the children suspended in 84 districts, and accounted for 75 percent or more of kids suspended in another 346 districts.
The overuse of harsh discipline is especially tough on young black men. They accounted for 65 percent of all young men suspended in the 13 southern states surveyed. Mississippi had the highest level of suspensions for young black men, with them accounting for seven out of every 10 young men suspended. But Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama weren’t far behind, with young black men accounting for three out of every five young male students suspended. Meanwhile young black women were also harshly disciplined by schools and districts; they accounted for 45 percent of all young women suspended. Mississippi also topped the states for the highest level, with young black women accounting for eight out of every 10 young women suspended. In Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama, young black women accounted for seven out of every 10 young women suspended.
What becomes clear from the Penn study is that young black children are placed on the school-to-prison pipeline more-often than children from any other socioeconomic background. Other data that has accumulated over the past three decades also shows these facts: That harsh school discipline almost never leads to improvements in behavior or in school cultures. That the underlying learning issues behind children misbehaving in school — especially low levels of literacy and the lack of intensive reading remediation to help kids struggling with reading — are often ignored. That the traditional system of recruiting and training teachers has filled far too many classrooms (and principal’s offices) with men and women lacking the subject-matter competency, empathy for children, leadership ability, and training in classroom management needed to not revert to tossing kids out of schools. And that reducing overuse of suspensions and expulsions improves school cultures for everyone as well as helps keeps kids often-targeted by traditional discipline practice on the path to graduation.
Perhaps the Penn study can rally all of us, be we reformer or traditionalist, to push for both traditional districts and charter school operators to stop overusing suspensions and expulsions. Maybe the Penn State study will lead all of us to support the Obama Administration’s crackdown on disparate use of those failed practices — and even extend it to all school operators. Possibly, it can lead to the embrace of practices such as those developed by Chuang Wang and Bob Algozzine of University of North Carolina at Charlotte that help kids improve behaviorally and academically. Surely, we can all agree that schools should lovingly discipline children the way parents who love their children do at home — which almost never involves kicking kids out of the house, subjecting them to solitary confinement, putting them in some form of bondage, or having them shot or shackled by cops. We may actually highlight the barbarity of these practices as a way to advance the reforms of teacher training and school systems that will help stem the nation’s education crisis.
But as your editor has noted, it’s more than likely that traditionalists and reformers will simply ignore the data and evidence, and complain that any effort to end or reduce overuse of harsh school discipline is merely some form of meddling. Education Next Editor Paul Peterson has already done his part with a screed in National Review complaining about the Obama Administration’s efforts on this front. Considering that Education Next has ran other pieces opposing any effort to stem overuse of suspensions (and Peterson’s defense of the magazine’s racially odious, indefensible American Gothic-inspire cover), Peterson’s piece isn’t shocking. Yet his response, along with similar views from others, does raise the question about some of those who call themselves reformers — as well as about the men and women who work in our traditional districts. If they are willing to defend failed school discipline policies that harm children in and out of schools, should they be trusted to do the right thing for kids on any matter of policy or practice?