Online only: Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Schools are doing a disservice to black male students in regards to discipline

R.L. Booker Jr.​

Several years ago, two high school students were charged with assault for attacking a gentleman and beating him. They were charged and released back to their families. The incident did not occur on school grounds nor was school in session. One would think that these students would not be subjected to any school disciplinary actions but that was not the case. These students were assigned to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) and their instruction for the school year was completed online. These students were both black and special-needs students.

Throughout my research, there has been a disturbing trend of black male students receiving disproportionately disciplinary actions compared to any other student groups. Because of these discipline actions black males suffer academically which leads to an increased dropout rate or to a path to prison. However, with changes in our school systems this trend can be changed.

A 2009-10 survey conducted by the Department of Education (DoE) showed blacks comprised 18 percent of America’s student body population but comprised 35 percent of suspended students, 46 percent of students suspended more than once, and 39 percent of all expulsions. The data was compiled from 72,000 schools and 7,000 school districts that made up 85 percent of the nations student body. Black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended than white students with black males suspended more than any other ethnic group. The results of this study led the DoE to begin a study of school referrals to law enforcement and its impact of the lives of these students. The practice of giving tickets to students in school contributes to the school to prison pipeline. 70 percent of students involved in school arrests referred to law enforcement were black or Hispanic.

Data show that students of color are disproportionately punished and expelled. Most of the offenses for the punishment are for school code violations. These students often go directly from school to the criminal justice system. Most of these students are in low- socioeconomic status urban school districts that are staffed with low paid inexperienced teachers. The teachers in these schools do not know how to manage their classrooms and come to conclusions about black males that are wrong. Bias by teachers has a significant role in disciplinary matters in schools. Cultural differences between teachers and black males may have a role in the discipline disparity. White women make up most teachers in our schools today and what they perceive as a problem (loud talking among each other) is not one at all. Many white female teachers find black male debates as aggressive and threatening. To reduce this misperception by white teachers and administrators, cultural responsive or awareness in-service time or professional development (PD) should be dedicated or offered to school staffs.

In our schools, males are disciplined more than females with black males as the most disciplined group. Black males are more likely to be identified as special education (SPED) behavior /emotional problems. This sub-group is more likely to have more discipline problems and drop out of school. There is no data that indicate black males misbehave more than any other members of the student body yet they are punished more severely for less severe misbehavior. In the 2009-10 DoE data collection, one in nine middle and high school students were suspended. 24 percent of those suspended were black and 7 percent were white. The results of the study and subsequent questions indicate that there may be a discipline gap between blacks and whites. In Carla Monroe’s 2005 book Why Are “Bad Boys” Always Black? three reasons for the discipline gap are cited: criminalization of black males, race and class privilege, and zero tolerance policies.

One must ask if this discipline gap affects the achievement gap between whites and blacks. Though there is no research to support higher black male disruptive behavior in the classroom, they are two to three times more likely to be either expelled or suspended.

The disparity in disciplinary actions can be explained by racial discrepancies in dispensation of disciplinary measures, proliferation of zero tolerance policies, interpersonal and cultural misunderstandings and /or attitudes of school personnel.

In a response to our court system’s crackdown on criminal violence, school districts adopted zero tolerance policies. The zero tolerance policy is an overreaction to a policy enacted to coincide with our criminal judicial system. What we have now is harsh punishment for all misconduct without regard to the severity of the conduct.

A mandatory suspension is one component of the zero tolerance policy in place in most of the country’s school districts. These suspensions lead to an easier path to students dropping out or falling behind academically. Suspensions have nearly doubled from the early 1970s to 2006 from 3.7 percent to 6.9 percent. The rise can be attributed to zero tolerance policies in place. Zero tolerance has morphed into discipline actions once only used for violent actions to today’s tardiness and violations of school codes. The policy has mostly impacted marginalized populations in our schools thereby greatly impacting student academics. These students miss instructional time and if not supervised may lead into damaging conduct outside of school. By this policy being used on black males there is a reduction in class instruction received by the students. Students that fall behind become discouraged and disconnected from school and may lead to higher dropouts.

Therefore, it should not surprise anyone that black male achievement scores are lower than their white peers. In a study of a Midwest school district conducted comprised of 3,587 black students, there were 3,714 days of instruction missed by black students due to disciplinary actions! The impact had devastating results on black student achievement on standardized exams in the district. Less than 48 percent passed or achieved advanced scores on the exams. Science and math scores saw only 19 percent of eighth graders passing and seven percent of ninth and 10th graders passing math.

There has been limited research conducted on disproportionate discipline effects on black male performance on standardized exams but UCLA professor Dan Losen suggests reducing suspensions improves student engagement which produces the safety of the learning environment. The first priority for schools should be a safe learning environment that encourages learning. Educators should understand that besides enforcing discipline in the classroom they should also encourage and promote life-long learning and the importance of staying in and completing their high school education. The current discipline model in our school systems is not working towards this goal of educating our black male students.

In a 2011 DoE study, 18,000 suspensions and 560 expulsions occur daily in grades K-12. Since 1970 suspensions for all students has doubled for all non-white students. The black/white discipline gap has tripled during this time frame. One out of seven black students has been suspended whereas only one of 20 white students. In our nation’s largest school districts during the 2007-08 school year 30 percent of black males had been suspended at least one time compared to less than 12 percent for white males. Black males are more likely to receive disciplinary actions for subjective reasons (insubordination and disruption). Teachers and administrators have an unconscious bias towards black students, which needs to be addressed.

Principals are extremely influential in regards to suspensions. A 2005 study conducted by Rausch and Skiba on suspensions found that if principals believed poverty, poor parenting and race were the cause for misbehavior then they suspended students more. In Texas, 97 percent of disciplinary actions were for school code violations not violence. There are three reasons given by Principals for expulsions and suspensions: (1) improve student’s behavior, getting parents attention and involvement, (2) deter other students from misbehaving (3) ensure school environment is conducive to teaching and learning.

Educators need to become agents of change in regards to our discipline and approach to black students and especially to black male students. Teachers should attend training sessions that allow understanding of their biases. In many PD sessions, there needs to be a frank and open acknowledgement on teacher bias and teaching in a diverse environment. Schools should incorporate cultural responsive strategies in regard to disciplinary practices. Educators who get to know their students and earn their trust will not have classroom management or discipline problems. Once students understand that a teacher cares about their success as a student and a person they will find the behavior they once seen as disruptive and requiring referrals will not be present. Schools have discretion in discipline actions; oftentimes it is not used. Most schools mete out punishment in accordance with a discipline matrix. Because of school administrators not using discretion and common sense students are being disciplined when other options exist. Students as well as all educators understand when serious offenses occur and when minor violations of school codes occur warrant an alternative method of punishment should be considered. Instruction must be challenging for the students if we want to encourage learning. When students participate in classroom discussion and instruction, misbehavior is reduced and active learning is engaged.

Our schools are doing a disservice to black male students in regards to discipline. Schools and administrators seem to prefer discipline or punish these students instead of getting to know the students and educate them. Instead of referrals and tickets that lead to the criminal justice system, counseling and therapy sessions should be used as well as amending zero tolerance policies. Schools should also seek more parent involvement in their student’s education and discipline problems. If we are truly committed to educating our black male students then our discipline model must change or we face losing another generation of under -educated black male students who will not contribute to society in a positive manner.

The two students, I mentioned earlier did not see one day in the classroom for the school year. The charges against them were dropped and they were forced out of school. One of the young men does nothing today because he is not educated and the other through help has a job in an oilfield. This should never happen to our students and as educators we should strive to make sure an instance like this never happens again.

RL Booker, Jr. ( is the executive director of The 34 Foundation, a local nonprofit in the San Antonio metro area.

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