American Public Square
Racial Disparities in School Discipline
Civil rights groups have observed “gross racial disparities” in student punishment in our public schools. There are concerns that these inequalities in treatment violate students’ civil rights. Moreover, unequal treatment in school punishment leads to far-reaching negative outcomes – the school to prison pipeline.
In a 2015 report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies from UCLA, researchers who studied discipline and racial disparities in schools found Missouri ranked first “in the country for the [out-of-school] suspension of Black elementary school students.” According to the report, Missouri suspended over 14% of Black elementary students and [has] the largest Black/White gap for suspensions at the elementary level (1).
In 2017 the ACLU issued a report, From School to Prison: Missouri’s Pipeline of Injustice, on racial disparity in school discipline and determined that the Missouri data are “beyond alarming and indicate that Missouri public schools are not engaging in equitable discipline.” In the 2013-2014 school year, researchers found “while Black students made up 14 percent of Missouri’s student population, they were given 41 percent of the suspensions as discipline” (2).
Looking at the Missouri numbers by gender, Black male students received nearly four times the out-of-school suspensions as White male students (3). Black girls in Missouri schools received 35 percent of all in-school suspensions though they only represented 14 percent of the female student population (
4). Beyond gender the report found “Missouri’s Black students with disabilities [were] suspended three times more frequently than White students with disabilities” (5). Even Black preschoolers showed a suspension rate four times higher than White preschoolers (6). The report discusses the downward spiraling effect of being singled out for discipline which sends students the message that they are “bad.” Students then get labeled and treated as “problematic” (7).
School discipline policies, left unchecked, have consequences and costs, not only for the students, but for society as a whole (8). The long-term effects of disciplinary suspension can end up “perpetuating cycles of poverty, low-education attainment, and systemic structural inequalities.” What results is “intergenerational socio-economic stratification” (9).
There is an economic cost to racial disparities in school discipline. “In Missouri, it costs $89,170 a year to pay for one child in a juvenile justice facility.” Compare this to the average cost of educating a student for one year – $10,802. The cost for juvenile justice robs other sectors of the state economy including education (10).
States are searching for ways to provide alternative approaches to suspension and school arrests. “Fourteen states have already passed measures designed to reduce or eliminate exclusionary discipline practices” (11). Virginia for example, passed legislation forbidding the suspension of pre-K through third grade for more than three days (12). There is movement in Missouri to adopt similar disciplinary strategies with the goal of keeping students in school and dealing with behavior issues in different ways. According to a report on KCUR, Kansas City Public Schools had “drastically decreased the number of out-of-school suspensions in 2016-17” (13).
- Daniel Losen, Cheri Hodson, Michael A. Keith II, Katrina Morrison, Shakti Belway “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” February 23, 2015. p. 7. LINK https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/are-we-closing-the-school-discipline-gap/?searchterm=are%20we%20closing%20the%20discipline%20gap
- ACLU Missouri. Missouri’s Pipeline of Injustice: From School to Prison, p.6. https://www.aclu-mo.org/en/missouris-pipeline-injustice-school-prison LINK
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- Daniel Losen, Cheri Hodson, Michael A. Keith II, Katrina Morrison, Shakti Belway “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” February 23, 2015. p. 4. LINK
- ACLU Missouri. Missouri’s Pipeline of Injustice, p. 19 & 21. https://www.aclu-mo.org/en/missouris-pipeline-injustice-school-prison LINK
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- Justin Mattingly. “Northam signs student discipline reform bills as Virginia schools still disproportionately suspend black students.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 3, 2018. LINK https://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/government-politics/general-assembly/northam-signs-student-discipline-reform-bills-as-virginia-schools-still/article_ee156e85-43b8-59ce-be13-e767818e9b91.html
- Moxley, Elle. “ACLU: Missouri Schools Still Punishing Black Students More Severely Than White Students.” KCUR, July 31, 2018. LINK https://www.kcur.org/post/why-kansas-city-public-schools-are-taking-trauma-sensitive-approach-discipline#stream/0