On Tuesday, July 28th, Colorlines published an article about a recent study examining the disparities between faculty responses to behavioral problems in students based on the race of the student. The article cited the analysis entitled “The Social Structure of Criminalized and Medicalized School Discipline,” which was conducted by the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Pennsylvania State University.

The study found what many of us might have expected: black students that exhibit behavioral problems are more likely to be and are more severely “punished” than white students demonstrating the same behaviors. The research provides real empirical evidence which reveals that faculty and staff are more likely to use disciplinary action and punishment to respond to problem behavior from a black student, while a white student would more likely receive rehabilitative assistance.

“…the study found that the more black students who attend a school, the more likely the people in charge are to call the police, rather than a doctor. It also revealed that schools with larger populations of black students have overall higher suspension rates, while their whiter counterparts had more kids enrolled in special needs programs.”

For many of us, unfortunately, this isn’t news. A study like this one in addition to the experiences I’ve had growing up in New York are only further confirmation that this phenomenon is not localized nor is it uncommon. I am reminded of Michelle Alexander’s revolutionary book, The New Jim Crow where she discusses the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many black students are suspended for behavioral problems at a disproportionate rate, especially in middle school and high school where such behavior can be indicative of larger health concerns. This starts a chain of events that makes it difficult for students to apply themselves in school, and leads many to give up altogether. Why is the immediate response to resort to disciplinary action before ruling out (mental) health issues? 

The National Education Association, via neaToday, even comments on the implications of suspending students for minor “offenses” and the very same school-to-prison pipeline mentioned above:

“Millions of students are removed from their classrooms every year, and overwhelmingly for minor disciplinary infractions.  Those students are far more likely to fall behind, drop out, and eventually land in the juvenile justice system — and they’re also disproportionately students of color, students with disabilities or students who identify as LGBT … The data shows clearly that change is needed: black, hispanic, and American Indian students are suspended at sometimes double the rate of their white peers.”

This is alarming considering how recent events such as school shootings and other tragedies have led to an increase in security protocols for schools while subsequently decreasing the urgency for eliminating faculty bias. The focus has shifted from providing a quality educational experience for all students and has instead prioritized the security and integrity of the building they attend school in. I’m sure we can all agree that safety is important and that no child should fear for their life while trying to learn, but oftentimes making our schools “safer” has been the justification for suspending, expelling and removing “problem” black students.

David Ramsey, the lead researcher on the project, even denotes the faulty prioritization:

“There’s been a real push toward school safety and there’s been a real push for schools to show they are being accountable. But, any zero-tolerance policy or mandatory top-down solutions might be undermining what would be otherwise good efforts at discipline, and not establishing an environment based around all the options available.”

It’s clear why an issue such as this is so important. When students are forcibly removed from school, an environment expected to provide various levels of enrichment, studies show that they can drop out and end up in juvenile institutions for even petty crimes. Many would argue that this is “what they need” because they need to be “taught a lesson,” aka rehabilitated, but when so many minors are sent to adult prisons and forced to live in conditions where their safety isn’t guaranteed, how can rehabilitation be actualized?

It is my hope that hard evidence will motivate those in power to enact the change necessary to give our youth the encouragement and enrichment they so rightfully deserve. For many of them, we really are their only hope and I cannot stress that enough. To view the full study, click here.

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