Study on racial disparity in N.C. school discipline raising questions

schoolbusRALEIGH – A study released this week by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Study of Race and Equity in Education said that in North Carolina, black students are more likely to be suspended than white students. The study authors looked at 13 Southern states, including North Carolina, concluding that they are part of an education system that “continually disadvantages black children, families, and communities.” They point to statistics that show 26 percent of students in the North Carolina’s school districts are black, but those students constitute 51 percent of suspensions and 38 percent of expulsions. However, the study is raising questions more than providing answers.

“School districts maintain color-blind behavioral standards and disciplinary standards, so the report’s authors implicitly blame teachers and school-based administrators for so-called ‘disproportionate discipline.’  Yet, it would be news to teachers and administrators that their underlying prejudice motivates their decisions to punish students who are violating their school’s and district’s code of conduct,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, a former high school teacher and the director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, a conservative think tank.

The study looked at the entire student enrollment in school districts across the South, the number of black students and the number of suspensions. Using this data, they determined the increased chance of a black student being suspended. The study did not look at whether the black students were disciplined differently than white students who committed the same offense, nor did it look at whether behavior patterns differed from one group of students to another.

“This particular study doesn’t look at that,” said the study co-author Edward Smith, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “Prior research suggests that these suspensions resulted from encounters with teachers reporting offenses that could be considered more subjective, like reports that they were disrupting class, as opposed to objective offenses, like bringing a gun to school… but that is beyond the scope of this study.”

Still, according to educators, whether or not black students are statistically more likely to be suspended for the same offense than a white student is key to determining whether and where improvements to the disciplinary procedures are needed.

“The solution to creating racially equitable discipline is not clear,” said Stoops. “The process of maintaining a disciplinary record that mirrors racial demographics would either require schools to discipline African American children less or punish students from other racial groups more. In either case, the emphasis is misplaced. Correcting behavior that impedes the educational process, not fidelity to demographics, should be the focus of student discipline.”

In 2014, the Obama administration issued guidance to school districts across the country through the Civil Rights Divisions of the Department of Justice and the Department of Education that called for schools to ease up on their zero tolerance rules in schoolroom discipline. The study authors said that the zero tolerance policies lead to students’ negative encounters with teachers, and a negative perception of authority eventually carries over to their relationships with law enforcement. The authors say they want their work bolster school administrative efforts to redesign teacher training and disciplinary procedures.

“We will also use this report to empower parents and families, support ongoing and new activist efforts, advise policymakers and educational leaders on necessary systemic changes and repeatedly assure black children they are not as bad as school discipline data suggest,” the report concluded. “Hopefully our research helps advance other important efforts in the field to ultimately dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.”

According to state education officials, directives to address racial inequities in discipline without taking offense rates into consideration would be difficult for educators to navigate, particularly as they try to educate all students and manage growing classrooms. However, they say efforts at the district level to better engage parents and guardians in the disciplinary process are crucial to keeping kids in school and out of trouble.