The U.S. Department of Education released a very disturbing report this week highlighting the disproportionately high rate of blacks students suspended from schools in comparison to white students. Black students are three time more likely to be suspended for days than whites irrespective of whether they come from poor, middle class, or wealthy families.
The practice and glaring disparities were found to be consistent across the data collected from 72,000 schools in the nation. When the study was release, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said, “The sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities, even within the same school.”
The real question is: Why? Why and what are the reasons for the high rates of punishments for black students, the majority of which are black boys, for what many consider minor disciplinary issues such as use of profanity or dress-code violations?
The answer to that question is a complex and multi-faceted one. While the report acknowledged that many of the urban schools have high populations of poor black kids from single parent homes, it also readily recognized the trend included the least experienced, least prepared, and lowest paid teachers taught in those schools.
But the study reported other findings from the data that are just as, if not more, alarming. The study documents that there is no body of evidence that black children exhibit higher rates of bad behavior than whites. Russ Skiba, an educational psychologist, says what this shows is that teachers, the majority of whom are white, are applying hidden prejudices in the process of disciplining black children.
Skiba noted, “We’ve had teachers tell us that there are different forms of white defiance, and they’re bothered more by black defiance.” Skiba’s views were further confirmed by reactions to a similar study about higher punishment rates of blacks in schools in Washington, D. C. Robert Pierre noted in an article covering the report, “…the more disturbing reason is one that many well-meaning people are loathe to admit: We see them differently. Adults attach to children their views of black men, even when those children are too young to understand that they are anything other than children.”
There is a body of research that clearly establishes a causal relationship between race and punishment meted out in schools. There are numerous instances where black kids are punished more frequently and more harshly for the same infractions. There is also a body of evidence that shows that higher suspension rates are directly linked to higher incarceration rates for black teens, which escalates as they become black men.
There also needs to be the critical realization that we do not live in a post-racial society. That there are prejudicial and stereotypical views that still influence our actions toward someone who is black versus white when all other aspects of the situation are deemed equal.
More importantly, we need to understand how those prejudicial views and actions have both costly short and long-term effects. They can often unduly and incorrectly sentence children to a life of underachievement, a denial of the real opportunity to pursue the American promise of an equal education, and a chance for a quality life.
If this study does nothing more, hopefully, schools administrators and teachers will re-think the kind of punishment they issue to students of different races, and make sure that the punishment is suitable for the offense, and that the offense is judged, and not the color of the child.
Imagine the number of young black students, particularly black boys, that have been negatively impacted — who knows for how long or how deeply — by the harsh punishment they received for the same offense as that of a white student.
But the good news is that there is also a body of evidence that shows that schools that issue fewer suspensions have higher achievement scores for all students — black and white.