The Legacy of Race

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: When is a suspension not just a suspension? When it’s part of a nationwide pattern leading to racial disparities and prison.

Source: American Civil Liberties Union

Let’s say two boys in an Alabama school get in trouble for doing the same thing. One is named DeAndre. The other is named Jake.

DeAndre, who is black, is more than three times as likely as Jake, who is white, to end up suspended or expelled or in the custody of the police.

That’s what statistics have shown over time, leading to DeAndre – or any black student – being far more likely to be tracked onto what education experts have described as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“The school-to-prison pipeline deprives students of color of their futures by pushing them out of school and its pathway to college and careers and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” the National Education Association says  in a report. “The pipeline is the result of an array of policies and practices, fed by institutional racism, that … include harsh school discipline policies that overuse suspension and expulsion, ‘zero-tolerance’ policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules, increased policing and surveillance in schools that create prison-like environments in schools, and overreliance on exclusionary disciplinary referrals to law enforcement and juvenile justice authorities.”

Across the country, as in Alabama, a black student has a far greater chance than a white student to end up kicked out of school and on a path that ends in prison. But by some measures, Alabama’s laws and regulations do less than the laws in other states to remedy racial disparities in how school discipline is meted out.

“Alabama is among the worst states in terms of exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspensions, expulsions and arrests,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a report. “A 2015 study found that only one state suspends a higher percentage of its students. Racial disparities are also apparent in Alabama, where black children are suspended, expelled and arrested at more than three times the rate of white children.”

The SPLC report quotes the work of researchers at the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project and the U.S. Department of Education.

For out-of-school suspensions that school year, government figures indicate that 61,753 Alabama students were suspended out of a school population of approximately 746,200, including kindergarten and pre-K, the Department of Education reported. It also showed that 16% of all black children were suspended, compared with 4.7% of white children, meaning that black children were 3.3 times as likely as white children to be suspended.

The department also reported on expulsions in Alabama in 2013-2014, saying that, with 1,849 children expelled, black children were 3.5 times as likely as white children to be expelled in the state. Nationally, black children were an average of 1.9 times as likely to be expelled than white children.

When it comes to arrests, 3,157 Alabama students were arrested or referred to law enforcement. Black children were 3.5 times as likely as white children to be referred to law enforcement or arrested in school in Alabama, versus a national average of 2.3 percent.

Dr. Samantha Strachan is the interim department chairwoman, program coordinator of secondary education and assistant professor of science education at Alabama A&M University. As part of her instruction to future classroom teachers, she talks about the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I always tell my students, when you enter a school building, what you’re going to see is curriculum. What you don’t see on paper is all the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum is the way the school really operates,” Strachan said. “How do we treat students? How do we accept differences in students? What are numbers like in terms of students who are being suspended, who are being expelled? … Do we have policies and procedures in place that affect one group over another group or one set or group of students over another group of students?”

Strachan teaches future teachers to be aware of personal biases and the social conditions that students may face, she said.

“I think the very structure of what we see sometimes happening in schools is kind of what’s happening in society in general, right? Sometimes students of color may be targeted because that’s what outside of the school, that’s what people of color deal with,” Strachan said. “So, is it just something that happens in the classroom? Absolutely not … . What makes it concerning is schools are supposed to be safe places.”

But that’s not always the case for all students, she said.

Dr. Samantha Strachan, Alabama A&M University assistant professor (Source: A&M)

She said there are school policies that contribute to students being punished at a level that routes them into the justice system, and there are other contributing factors such as students dropping out.

“But I think the school-to prison-pipeline is specifically looking at some zero tolerance policies that have been put in place, and then the resulting consequences of those policies. So if the school has a zero tolerance policy about weapons and a child throws a pencil across the room and that pencil is labeled a weapon, then what are the consequences that happen as a result of that pencil being thrown? Does it lead to a school resource officer being called? Does it lead to a child being arrested?”

Strachan referred to the case of Ka’Mauri Harrison, a 9-year-old black student at Woodmere Elementary School in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Ka Mauri was distance learning at home, taking a test online over video conference software, when one of his siblings tripped over a BB gun that Ka’Mauri had been given as a gift. Ka’Mauri moved the BB gun to a chair. His teacher saw it, alerted the principal’s office, and that led to Ka’Mauri being suspended from school.

It also led to outraged comments from the state’s Republican attorney general about overreaching the student’s rights. Following that was support from across the country, including from the National Rifle Association, and a lawsuit against the school system by Ka’Mauri’s parents. This week, the Louisiana House Education Committee was pursuing changing state law to force school districts to come up with policies specific for online learning.

So far, Ka’Mauri hasn’t tried to drop out of school, hasn’t been arrested, and hasn’t ended up in prison. But for some students, suspension leads to expulsion — which is what Jefferson Parish officials initially proposed for Ka’Mauri — and then to an escalating series of problems that include trouble with the law.

“So what are the policies that support students being punished in ways, because of what we call zero tolerance and how are those policies resulting in putting students on a path to end up eventually, not only in the juvenile justice system, but also in prison complexes?” Strachan asked.

The school-to-prison pipeline and the general failure of many zero tolerance policies to remedy the problems they were meant to fix are well-known issues.

The department of education’s Civil Rights Data Collection area in a 2018 report, “School Climate and Safety,” said black students in 2015-16 typically found themselves suspended or expelled at rates much higher than their percentage of the student population nationwide.

“Black male students represented 8 percent of enrolled students and accounted for 25 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension,” according to the report. “Black female students represented 8 percent of the student enrollment and accounted for 14 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension.”

For white students, the numbers are different. “White male students represented 25 percent of students enrolled and 24 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension,” according to the CRDC report. “White female students represented 24 percent of students enrolled and 8 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension.”

The numbers are similar when the CRDC reports numbers of students expelled that year. “White male students represented 25 percent of students enrolled and 27 percent of students who were expelled. White female students represented 24 percent of students enrolled and 10 percent of students who were expelled,” the report notes.

“Black male students represented 8 percent of enrolled students and accounted for 23 percent of students expelled. Black female students represented 8 percent of the student enrollment and accounted for 10 percent of students who were expelled,” according to the CRDC.

On Law Enforcement’s Radar

When it comes to students referred by schools to law enforcement nationwide, CRDC reports: “During the 2015-16 school year, black students represented 15 percent of the total student enrollment and 31 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested — a 16 percentage point disparity. During the 2013–14 school year, black students had an 11 percentage point disparity.” That year, black students were 16% of the student enrollment and 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement or arrested.

Compare those numbers to those of white students nationwide: “During the 2015-16 school year, white students represented 49 percent of the total student enrollment and accounted for 36 percent of those referred to law enforcement or arrested,” the report stated. “During the 2013-14 school year, white students were 50 percent of the student enrollment and 38 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested.”

Data supports the contention that the school-to-prison pipeline primarily impacts children of color and is worse if those children have disabilities. Looking at the Department of Education statistics, reported that “Students from two groups — racial minorities and children with disabilities — are disproportionately represented in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

“About 1 in 4 black children with disabilities were suspended at least once, versus 1 in 11 white students, according to an analysis of the government report by Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Losen found racial differences in suspension rates have widened since the early 1970s, and suspension is being used more frequently as a disciplinary tool. But he said his recent study and other research show that removing children from school does not improve their behavior. Instead, it greatly increases the likelihood they will drop out and wind up behind bars.

The National Education Association points out that the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately pushes “students of color, including those who identify as LGBTQ, have disabilities, and/or are English Language Learners, into the criminal justice system for minor school infractions and disciplinary matters, subjecting them to harsher punishments than their white peers for the same behaviors. The school-to-prison pipeline diminishes their educational opportunities and life trajectories.”

How Did This Happen?

A Harvard University study, “Zero Benefit: Estimating the Effect of Zero Tolerance Discipline Polices on Racial Disparities in School Discipline,” by Stephen Hoffman, reports  that, “Specific practices implemented in United States schools over the past ten years to reduce violence in schools, including zero tolerance policies and an increase in School Resource Officers, have created the environment for criminalization of youth in schools. This results from patterns of discipline in schools mirroring law enforcement models.

(Source: Unsplash)

“The disciplinary policies and practices that create an environment for the United States school-to-prison link disproportionately affect disabled, Latino and Black students, which is later reflected in the rates of incarceration,” Harvard noted. “Between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of black students being suspended has increased by twelve percent, while the percentage of white students being suspended has declined since the implementation of zero tolerance policies.”

Nancy A. Heitzeg, professor of sociology and program director for critical studies of race/ethnicity, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota,  published the results of her study under the title “Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline.”

“While the school-to-prison pipeline is facilitated by a number of trends in education, it is most directly attributable to the expansion of zero tolerance policies,” she wrote, noting a conclusion  that many who studied such policies have reached. “These policies have no measurable impact on school safety but are associated with a number of negative effects: racially disproportionality, increased suspensions and expulsions, elevated drop-out rates, and multiple legal issues related to due process. A growing critique of these policies has led to calls for reform and alternatives.”

Since zero tolerance policies have been shown to be largely ineffective, few schools still use the term. Research by F. Chris Curran, assistant professor of public policy, UMBC, found that “as of 2013, seven states and 12 percent of school districts had discipline policies that used the term ‘zero tolerance.’ While almost all states and about two-thirds of districts had a policy that required expulsion for certain infractions, these state laws and district policies overwhelmingly applied to serious infractions, like bringing a gun to school.”

Curran cited a 2018 report by the Education Commission of the States that  “shows that only 15 states require suspension or expulsion for physical harm or assault. And only 11 do for drug use or possession. Only two states’ statutes require suspension or expulsion for less serious infractions, like defiance or disruptive behavior.”

Alabama, the Education Commission reported, does allow students to be suspended for “defiance or disruptive behavior.”

That same report shows that, while a number of states have enacted laws “restricting the use of suspension or expulsion or encouraging the use of alternative school discipline strategies — demonstrating a movement away from zero tolerance and toward less-punitive strategies,” Alabama does not appear to be one of them.

The Education Commission notes that in Alabama:

  • There are no statutes or regulations restricting suspension or expulsion.
  • A student can be suspended or expelled for defiant or disruptive behavior or violating the school’s electronic communications policy.
  • There are no statutes or regulations outlining non-punitive approaches as alternatives to suspension or expulsion, although alternative school options exist.
  • There are no statutes or regulations outlining reporting requirements for suspension or expulsions

Alabama is, however, one of several states the Education Commission found that are “opting to use discipline data to inform various aspects of the school improvement process,” and that include “the assessment and refinement of disciplinary practices in a list of interventions targeted at schools in need of improvement.”

Under the Trump administration, federal officials have taken a swing away from policies that were seen as efforts to stop racially disparate disciplinary results in schools.

In 2018, Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked Obama-era guidelines designed to protect children of color from being disciplined more harshly than their peers. The Obama justice and education departments issued the non-binding guidance in 2014, suggesting that schools could violate the civil rights of their students if they disciplined students of color at higher rates than white students.

Educators complained that the Obama-era guidance was too heavy-handed. The Trump administration, which “rescinded several key pieces of education civil rights guidance,” as noted by Education Week, revoked the guidance aimed at making sure schools didn’t levy harder discipline on students of color.

 More Than a Policy, a Mindset

A 2015 study by two Stanford University psychologists suggests that a mindset may lie at the root of some of the harsher discipline meted out to black students. The report “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students,” comprises two studies showing that teachers are more likely to label Black students as troublemakers than their white counterparts. The studies were based on teachers’ reactions to reports of two instances of hypothetical misbehavior by students identified in one case by names like Greg and Jake and in another case by names like DeShawn or Darnell.

A report about the study findings states: “Across both studies, the researchers found that racial stereotypes shaped teachers’ responses not after the first infraction but rather after the second. Teachers felt more troubled by a second infraction they believed was committed by a Black student rather than by a white student.

“In fact, the stereotype of black students as ‘troublemakers’ led teachers to want to discipline black students more harshly than white students after two infractions. … They were more likely to see the misbehavior as part of a pattern, and to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future,” the Stanford report notes.

Why Does It Matter?

Losen and researcher Amir Whitaker wrote the report “11 Million Days Lost: Race Discipline and Safety at U.S. Public Schools,” which is derived from the CRDC results. They concluded that “nationally, school children lost over 11 million days of instruction (11,360,004) as a result of out-of-school suspension. That’s roughly 66 million hours of missed instruction or more than 63,000 school years of lost learning. As this report demonstrates, the time lost was not distributed evenly.”

Losen and Whitaker wrote that “based on economic studies of costs associated with dropping out, our research demonstrated that there are serious negative economic costs implicated by the increased dropout risks that could be attributed to suspension. Among the strongest findings on the harm from suspension come from a 2018 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Youth & Society, which concluded that after 12 years had passed, students who were suspended were less likely to have graduated from high school or college and more likely to have been arrested or on probation.”

Researchers pointed out that numerous studies led the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conclude in March 2008 “that students who are suspended from school ‘lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system’.”

Suspension statistics figure into the conversation about differences in educational outcomes for black and white students while still in school, Losen and Whitaker wrote. “School discipline disparities contribute to learning opportunity disparities, and one study suggests that school suspensions account for approximately one-fifth of Black-White racial differences in school performance.”

Losen and Whitaker noted with some alarm that official federal policy on the value of collecting data on race-based disciplinary discrepancies may have changed. “When the U.S. Department of Education provided a summary of the latest release of the CRDC results in April 2018 they failed to mention this new data element,” the researchers wrote. “In the past, the department’s Office of Civil Rights would point out new data elements and the concerns they raised about educational inequality. The Trump administration’s failure to even mention these new data raises concern that they will not pay attention to the serious civil rights issues raised by racially disparate discipline.”