Disability, Race and Reasons: What We Know, and Don’t Know, About Disparity in School Discipline

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report this month on school discipline with a topline finding that “black students, boys and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) in K-12 public schools.”

All of those things are true and glaring in the charts accompanying the report, which is based on a deep mine of education statistics from the 2013-2014 school year. Black students make up about 15 percent of the 50.2 million public school students in this country, but they made up nearly 40 percent of those who were suspended. There were 176,000 black students suspended. There are 17.4 million more white students than black students.

Black students were wildly overrepresented for all six types of punishments analyzed by the GAO

Looking through the rest of the report and the massive appendix of disaggregated data, here are a few other points Youth Services Insider found interesting.

We Need the “Why”

Three lines in this report highlight what, in our humble opinion, is an extremely critical piece when trying to address the disparity issues raised by this report. The first is a disclaimer under the report’s first chart:

Note: Disparities in student discipline such as those presented in this figure may support a finding of discrimination, but taken alone, do not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.

From a note on an investigation of a California school district by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights:

The practice of removing students from school for disciplinary reasons without appropriate recordkeeping and due process makes it almost impossible for the school to assess whether it is fully meeting its duty of ensuring nondiscrimination with respect to discipline.

And finally, a line in a background section on previous research:

The issue of who gets disciplined and why is complex. Studies we reviewed suggest that implicit bias — stereotypes or unconscious associations about people — on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex.

How do these all connect? The report takes on the aforementioned complexity of who gets disciplined but skips entirely the complexity of why. This is almost certainly because, like the California school district, recordkeeping on the actual reasons behind disciplinary actions are spotty.

It all adds up to a report that suggests discrimination is the why, but really cannot be used to prove it. The disparate numbers on black and disabled students are just that, numbers; you need the “why” part to reflect disparate treatment. You also need the “why” to zero in on where changes can be made to disciplinary practice that would most address unfair treatment.

Now, having said that …

Preschool Proof of Disparity

If you were looking for proof in this study that black students are unevenly punished, the best place to look is in a section that is hard to believe even needs to be included: suspension of preschool children.

Here, we can extract the “why” portion of treatment, because there is no reason why a preschooler should be suspended. That’s lunacy. So all we have to look at is the “who.”

There were 6,751 preschoolers suspended during the 2013-2014 school year. Only 19 percent of all preschoolers are black, but they accounted for 47 percent of those suspensions.

If this report includes a smoking gun on disparate treatment, thar she blows.

The Poorest Quarter

In addition to demographics and disability status, the report introduces the variable of “school poverty,” as defined by the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch pricing. Poverty is broken into four quadrants: 0-25 percent, 25- 49 percent, 50-74 percent, and 75- 100 percent.

The GAO report found diverging suspension trends for Hispanic and black students among the schools with the highest proportion of poor students.

A tiny percent of all white students (7 percent) attend schools in that fourth quadrant. But those schools are home to 43 percent of black students and 44 percent of Hispanic students. In total, 78 percent of the kids who attend the poorest schools are black or Hispanic.

So Youth Services Insider hopes some researcher takes on the marked difference in discipline disparity between Hispanic and black students in this quadrant, because it is staggering. Here is the split on out-of-school suspensions, which the report uses throughout as the central metric:

  • Black students: Overrepresented by 24.6 percent
  • Hispanic students: Underrepresented by 20.2 percent.

The report notes that “children’s behavior in school may be affected by health and social challenges outside the classroom that tend to be more acute for poor children, including minority children who experience higher rates of poverty.”

But that delta between black and Hispanic students on suspensions would seem to counter that assertion, and warrants further research.

Diverging Trend for Black and Disabled Students

Aside from black students, the other segment of students overrepresented in suspensions across the board is disabled children. [Admittedly, we are skipping over the GAO’s finding that “boys” are an overrepresented group, since that is half of all students and of no surprise to anyone.]

Both black and disabled students are overrepresented in suspensions in every quadrant of the school poverty spectrum. But the extent to which the two groups are overrepresented goes in different directions.

As mentioned in the previous section, black students in the poorest quadrant of schools make up 24.6 percent. The overrepresentation lessens steadily, landing at 12.2 percent in the more affluent schools.

For disabled students, it goes the other way. The overrepresentation in the poorest schools is 10.5 percent. In the most affluent schools, it’s 20.2 percent.

By the way, the convergence of those two groups does yield the tragic disparity one would expect. Students who are both black and disabled make up 2 percent of the student population, and 9 percent of all suspensions and arrests.

Foster Youth: Instability Strikes Again

GAO conducted case studies in five states to get some ground-level knowledge of the issue. One of the reasons cited frequently as a cause for suspensions was unexcused school absences, which when they pile up can prompt disciplinary action.

Education officials in California told GAO that “homeless and foster youth frequently miss school because of all the transitions and instability in their lives.” In Texas, the report said, “officials also reported attendance issues with students who are homeless or in foster care because they lack transportation and clothing.”

In other words, foster youth are suspended for not being able to get to school because they don’t have a way to get there. This is a small part of the mess that Congress hopes will be addressed by the foster youth provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which requires schools to work with child welfare agencies to arrange transportation plans that permit youth in care to attend their school of origin.

The jury is definitively out on whether the law is working. The Chronicle of Social Change’s coverage of the law shows that many states claim they are living up to ESSA on foster youth transport, but evidence of true statewide compliance is murky.

Social Media Fueling Punishment

Officials in five of the states that GAO visited said that beefs on Facebook and other online outlets are spilling into the hallways, leading to suspensions, expulsions and arrests. From the report:

School officials in all five of the selected states also said that social media results in conflicts or related behavioral incidents among students, such as related bullying and arguments. Officials at a school in Georgia said that social media arguments can cause students who were not part of the original situation to be pulled in, creating classroom disruptions that end in discipline for a larger group.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1213 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.