Disparities in discipline still plaguing public school systems

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African American students are being disciplined at higher rates than their white counterparts. (istockphoto/omgimages via #WordinBlack/SeattleMedium)

By Aaron Allen
The Seattle Medium and Word in Black

In a school year devastated by a pandemic, African American and marginalized students are being disciplined at higher rates than their white counterparts here in the state of Washington and across the nation.

According to a recent statewide analysis of discipline data from the 2019/2020 school year by Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 leading Black newspapers across the country, Black students in California, Georgia, Maryland, Texas and Washington state faced higher rates of suspensions and expulsions than their White counterparts.

In every state except Maryland, Black students were punished with in-school suspensions at much higher rates than White students. In Washington, Black students were given in-school suspensions at least twice the rate as White students. Additionally, the expulsion rates in Washington for Black students and White students are each under 1%, but Black students are at least twice as likely to be expelled than their White peers.

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Some educators like Ted Howard, Chief Academic Officer for the Tukwila School District, believe that the disparities are a direct result of a system that is in dire need of change. “This is happening in multiple areas and there’s an answer, but it is not a solution to the problem being raised,” says Howard. “It goes back to the inception on how schooling was created. They were created for unequalness and they are fulfilling what they were supposed to do, and we see it playing out in academics across racial lines.”

Unfortunately, statistical data supports Howard’s claim. In an analysis of federal data from the 2015-2016 school year released last year, the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project and the Learning Policy Institute found Black students were disciplined at higher rates than white students.

A key finding in the analysis found that “Black students lost 103 days per 100 students enrolled, which is 82 more days than the 21 days their White peers lost due to out-of-school suspensions.”

Further analysis shows us that Black boys lost 132 days per 100 students enrolled. Black girls lost 77 days, which was seven times the rate of their White counterparts.

The report also found that Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students came in second with 63 days lost, and Native American students lost an average 54 days. “These stark disparities in lost instruction explain why we cannot close the achievement gap if we do not close the discipline gap,” Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Right Remedies and lead researcher on the report told U.S. News.

“With all the instructional loss students have had due to COVID-19, educators should have to provide very sound justification for each additional day they prohibit access to instruction,” added Losen.

Howard also believes teachers and educators must be more accountable in disciplining

students of color as they are at the heart of instruction and interaction with students. “I hate to say this but this system is all dependent on teachers,” says Howard. “It is dependent on teachers’ backgrounds, teachers who care and different ways of restorative practices and how they handle different situations.”

“They can either escalate the situation or de-escalate the situation,” added Howard. “So, academically this has an impact and it has an impact on students discipline wise. It can be supportive or non-supportive.”

According to experts, negative behavior by students could be the result of many factors including hunger, low self-esteem, bullying, and a variety of different factors and most schools are not prepared to handle the diverse ways in which students may not adequately be prepared to come to school ready to learn.

“These are all variables they play into the disciplining of students. Whether the student didn’t eat, or they may be embarrassed because their clothes are dirty and they don’t want to come to the front of class,” says Howard. “Now you’re depending on the school to have answers to all to these unknowns, and the schools just don’t have them.”

Some experts believe disciplinary actions directly relate to the academic progress of students. They believe that students who are disciplined more often are less likely to have academic success because they are missing the quality instruction time necessary to be successful.

Sharon Williams, a retired educator of 40 years in the Seattle School district, agrees and said she witnessed the negative impacts of discipline on academic achievement first hand.

“In my experience, I’ve witnessed the disparities and how schools discipline students and which students are being disciplined more than others,” says Williams. “And yes, usually it was those students who were underachieving for whatever reason and those reasons vary.”

Howard believes that part of the solution is based on an inclusive, decision-making model, where parents of color, teachers, including teachers of color, are at the table working together to help bring about meaningful change to the system.

“In order to address this, parents, educators and administrators need to sit down together and come up with practices they would like to see,” says Howard. “And what I mean by that is to come up with goals that say hey we won’t send kids home for certain infractions and make a list of [those] infractions. But it takes [the] community to sit down and unpack data, look at that data and say these are the things that we will to do to help support and make sure our kids don’t get kicked out and they get a quality education.”

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