THE BLOG
08/27/2014 11:24 am ET | Updated Oct 27, 2014

With Eye Toward Equity, Schools Rethink Discipline

In a month dominated by news reports of racial tension, a significant milepost in American race relations garnered less attention: For the first time in this country's history, white students will this year no longer comprise a majority of the nation's schoolchildren.

In recent days, several writers have argued that the unrest in Ferguson can be connected to issues of inequality in local schools. The shift in the composition of the nation's student body should be considered part of the ongoing conversation about the changing landscape of race and disciplinary consequences. Those new majority students -- particularly black and Latino students --  are suspended, expelled and arrested at far greater rates than their white peers, according to numerous academic and government studies.

Many activists -- and some policymakers, including the president -- argue these disciplinary trends among schoolchildren mark these students for continued troubles into adulthood, contributing to the nation's disproportionate incarceration rates among black and Hispanic men and women. 

Now, a growing number of school districts across the country are discarding policies that experts say target minority students unfairly, and increase their odds of more serious encounters with the justice system as they age out of school.

Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco have all recently implemented new discipline codes that steer students who commit non-threatening offenses to counseling, community service and other assistance in lieu of suspensions -- or worse. Maryland has adopted a similar policy statewide, while a bill passed by California's Legislature would bar schools from expelling students for defying school officials' orders. 

And more districts appear likely to follow. The Obama administration in January urged school systems to re-examine their discipline policies so that a smaller share of minorities wind up with punishments forcing them to miss school. 

The School Discipline Problem in Numbers

In the penal system and in the nation's schools, an outsize share of minority males and females are punished. 

One in 15 black males is imprisoned, while the same is true for one in every 105 white males, the ACLU in 2011 reported. Among Hispanic males, one in every 36 is incarcerated.

Compare those rates to school discipline statistics. A consortium of 26 researchers spent four years crunching data on suspensions and expulsions, finding that one in five black male students was suspended in 2010 -- more than three times the national average. Latinos and students with disabilities were also overrepresented in the discipline data. As California news outlet EdSource Today noted, the racial disparity data do not suggest black males or Latinos commit more severe offenses. More often than not, suspensions are issued for behavior that's not a threat to student safety. 

Even the earliest learners are caught up in discipline actions that are racially disproportionate: Forty-two percent of preschool students who have been suspended at least once are black, even though they represent less than a fifth of all preschoolers in the country, according to federal data.

And more research is pointing to the existence of a school-to-prison pipeline. A 2006 study found that a first-time arrest doubles the risk of a student dropping out of high school and quadruples that hazard if the case leads to a court appearance. The ACLU calculates that up to 80 percent of these juvenile offenders enter the justice system without a lawyer, often committing minor infractions that violate their parole and worsen their punishments because they didn't receive sound legal counsel.

 Another study that looked at more than 200 schools in Virginia found that a school's dropout rate rises the more it suspends or expels students. In many cases, quitting school before high school graduation also increases the risk of incarceration.  In Texas, more than 80 percent of its prisoners are high school dropouts

Finally, a landmark 2011 study researched the student files of nearly one million Texas students and found higher rates of grade repetition, dropouts, and incarceration for students who were suspended or expelled -- a larger share of whom were black or Latino.

School Discipline Reform

Against this backdrop of evidence that minorities are disciplined more harshly, and as a result, are more likely to face jail time, districts and states are taking action. In the past year several major school districts have adopted policies that aim to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions, along with the number of punishments that involve police officers.

Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, announced last week that it's adopting a series of disciplinary reforms that will refer more students with minor offenses to counselors and community organizations.

"We want students to be with us, not pushed out and sent to jail," Superintendent John Deasy was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. "We have been disproportionately incarcerating, disproportionately citing, and disproportionately suspending youth of color, and it's wrong."

Coupled with last year's school board vote that banned suspensions for "willful defiance" -- a catch-all offense for not following the orders of school officials that accounted for 47 percent of the district's suspensions in 2011-12 -- the new policies are seen as a response to community leaders who called for practices that pared the number punishments resulting in students missing school.

[A 2012 investigative series by Center for Public Integrity and KPCC shed light on the city's discipline policies. EWA judges awarded the series first-prize honors two years ago.] 

San Francisco's school district eliminated willful defiance as a reason for suspension or expulsion in February of this year. Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest school district, in June passed revisions to its code of conduct that stressed more remediation and fewer referrals to the police. In 2013 the district suspended 13 percent of its student population, according to a report by local news outlet WBEZ.

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, already a leader in discipline that eschews suspensions, formalized its policies last week by creating a rubric that recommends mentoring, counseling, and community service for most offenses. The district's earlier efforts to mete out softer punishments led to a 37 percent drop in the number of suspensions and expulsions in the last year.

State bodies are reconsidering their states' school discipline measures, too. Maryland in January passed a new set of regulations that establishes rehabilitative measures that sidestep suspensions and provide educational services when student punishments cause them to miss school. California may be next. Lawmakers of the nation's most populous state passed a bill barring schools from expelling students for willful defiance. If signed by the governor, the law would also ban willful defiance suspensions issued to students in third grade and below.

Additional Challenges

Some of these policy changes require additional school resources. EWA interviewed a journalist from the San Antonio Express-News

But even with this new shift toward softer punishment, racial disparities continue. In Los Angeles, for example, police fines and citations dropped from nearly 11,700 to 3,500 between 2009 and last year after a series of reforms. But as the Los Angeles Times notes, "African Americans are still disproportionately arrested, making up 31% of 1,100 arrests by L.A. school police in 2013, even though they make up less than 10% of the student population."

And previous efforts to adopt a more lenient disciplinary code still leave much room for out-of-school punishment. In 2012 New York City schools reduced the maximum suspension period from 10 to five days for mid-level offenses like pushing and graffiti. The policy switch applied to students in kindergarten through third grade.

Nor does it appear that all school officials support softer punishments. A July survey of superintendents found that 72 percent of district leaders expect teachers to oppose curbing out-of-school suspensions. The superintendents felt the same way about their principals 57 percent of the time.

With the share of white students falling and Latino students rising, school suspension and expulsion figures in the United States risk hitting new highs, unless more districts tackle their discipline policies head on. After decades of believing tough punishment holds students in line, can schools right the ship to keep more of their students academically afloat?

Bonus content: 

 Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline