SD Research Roundup: Focus on school discipline, part 1

There have been major stories recently regarding school diversity (among other things!), including the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama-era guidance on Affirmative Action. By design in the Trump era, just about every day brings a deluge of stories that are often as consequential as they are morally shocking. And, in that constant wave of big stories, others get lost, though these are often just as important and troubling. I want to focus on one of those perhaps-overlooked topics: racial disparities in school discipline.

So far this summer, there’s already been at least four important studies released about school discipline as well as several appalling news stories, including yet another police shooting that has not gotten nearly enough attention. There was a bit too much for one post, so I split it into two parts – this one focuses on the research and an upcoming post will look at the news stories.

Of the studies here, two primarily focus on unconscious bias, and two look at the effects of exclusionary discipline. In the interest of space, I’ve kept the summaries brief. As always, I encourage a full read. Here’s what I found most compelling:

Unconscious bias

    • This study, published a few weeks ago, looks at aspiring teachers’ reactions to student facial expressions. Researchers showed them 20 pictures of Black and White students faces and they watched 4 videos of Black and White student misbehavior. They found that “misbehaviors were perceived as more hostile for Black than White boys” and that a similar “anger bias exists toward Black females.”
    • Along those lines, a recent study from the NAACP LDF focuses specifically on Black girls in Baltimore public schools. It builds on earlier research on the “erasure of Black girls’ childhood.” The Baltimore Sun has good coverage of this – here are a few startling statistics:
        • “While black girls make up about 80 percent of the city schools’ female student body, they accounted for 95 percent of suspensions.”
      • “While approximately 33 percent of female youth in Maryland are black, they represent 65 percent of the female placements at the Department of Juvenile Services.”
  • In Baltimore, discipline disparities are exacerbated by the fact that the city’s school district is the only one in Maryland that actually has its own police force. It’s important to note that there’s both a personal/educational cost to the individuals who are suspended (more about that below) as well as a larger social cost. The Baltimore Sun article notes that when Black girls speak up about things that bother them, they are “labeled as aggressive rather than encouraged to be activists.” And, society loses out on the benefit of their activism.

Exclusionary discipline

    • This study comes from Minnesota, and looks at students’ experiences of exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspensions and expulsions). It’s rare in the school discipline literature in that it relies on interviews with actual students as its primary source of data. And, it includes a lot of great recommendations, like:
      • Helping students feel “valued, welcomed and connected.” In interviews for the report, “young people discussed feeling undervalued at school, noting that racism and other forms of negative labeling (being known as a troublemaker) from school personnel were often drivers of treatment that led to those feelings.”  
  • Published in a highly respected academic journal, this study looked at whether there is a causal relationship between suspensions and negative academic outcomes, i.e., Do suspensions make things worse? And, it found that they do. Chalkbeat has a great summary. Basically:
      • The study included about 70,000 NYC high school students between 2005-2011, and it compared each student to her/himself before and after suspension.
      • The researchers concluded that the suspensions themselves actually made it less likely that students would pass their math and English classes and more likely that students would dropout.
    • Caveat: After the time period of the study, NYC changed its school discipline policies to reduce suspensions; so, this research can’t tell us whether those policies had a positive effect on student outcomes.

I should note there has been some sources of hope here – a new Ohio bill aims to bar suspensions for K-3 students.

For some issues in the school diversity universe, the relationship between structural racism and student outcomes can be complex and difficult to see immediately. But, racial bias in school discipline is different. Things like unconscious personal bias and/or structural racism are directly obvious in the numbers. Again, in Baltimore, Black girls make up 80% of the female student population, yet account for 95% of the suspensions. All but 5%!

Likewise, solutions to racial inequities can also be complex, but in the case of discipline disparities, it should be straightforward. Several of the studies above recommend that instead of relying on police and/or exclusionary discipline, schools should hire more counselors and student support personnel. It’s exactly like the students say in the photo above – this is from the Alliance4EdJustice, a coalition of youth organizers who work for the liberation of youth of color. In the photo, students are standing before the federal DOE, holding signs that read “Counselors Not Cops” and wearing shirts that say “End the School to Prison Pipeline.” There’s an enormous social cost to ignoring/disregarding these kinds of changes, changes that should be obvious in the first place. Next week, I’ll look at how that social cost is evident in several recent news stories that are, in my opinion, as morally appalling as the ones that catch most of the national headlines.

Update: Part 2 is available here

9 thoughts on “SD Research Roundup: Focus on school discipline, part 1

  1. Great post, Peter. I love the fact that people are getting out there and wearing signs that say Counselors Not Cops and End the School to Prison Pipeline. If we can invest in these kids now and get them on the right track, we would be doing good by them AND us by saving money on prisons. Do you know of any studies on this with real numbers?


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