Race and Discipline in Schools (Final Draft)


(This is the final draft of my essay for my Eng Comp 1 class which I hope posting it here will really get people thinking about how schools craft their discipline policies)

When it comes to discipline in schools there are some who think it’s about race or sex but that’s only the gist of the problem because it goes deeper than just the color of a person’s skin or what’s between their legs. There are other reasons why school districts have the discipline policies that they have and as a result curtain students suffer under them when they’re enforced which is unintentional but I think one of the reasons is that parents want schools to do more than what’s needed of them, as a result school administrators tend to make discipline policies that are too broad and could never be enforced fairly in the long run. Plus it also comes down to where the school is located in regards to the income level of the parents. Because if something happens at a school located in a high income area there is more likely than not at least one of the child’s parents at home who can confront the school about the situation and it is usually handled quickly but if a school is located in a lower income area then both parents are more than likely working long hours and can’t confront the school about a situation so it’s not handled right away until it becomes a major problem.

The problem I have with zero tolerance policies for discipline in schools is that it is a major contributor to the school to prison pipeline which isn’t as bad as it was in the 90’s but it’s still a problem in schools located in low income communities. Furthermore students that get in trouble in school are more likely to have problems with law enforcement as many school discipline policies tend to normalize incarceration, according to a Frontline documentary titled “Prison State” which takes a look at the cycle of incarceration in America as well as one state’s efforts to try and reverse the trend, which is how it’s explained on their website. In the documentary they point out that people from low income communities are more likely to go to schools with zero tolerance policies as well as having known someone or have someone in their family who has been arrested or has been to jail. In the documentary they interview Michelle Alexander who is an Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State University and she states that “In these communities where incarceration has become so normalized, the system operates practically from cradle to grave. When you’re born, your parent has likely already spent time behind bars. You’re likely to attend schools that have zero tolerance policies, where police officers patrol the halls, where disputes with teachers are treated as criminal infractions, where a schoolyard fight results in your first arrest. You find at a very, very young age, even the smallest infractions are treated as criminal. And that’s where it begins. It sends this message whether if you follow the rules or you don’t, you’re going to jail. Just like your uncle, just like your father, just like your brother, just like your neighbor, you, too, are going to jail. It’s part of your destiny.” which is something I had said earlier but while I agree with that quote it’s not true for all schools in low income communities while there are schools that do have more than just one police officer patrolling the halls. There are also schools in those communities that don’t have any police officers patrolling the halls at all in their schools. Frontline also interviewed for the documentary Mark Bolton who is the Director of the Louisville Department of Corrections who makes a good point about how the US has invested billions of dollars into building prisons and that the US also spends billions of dollars to keep them operational he states in the documentary that “We’ve gone through just an explosion of jail and prison construction in this country, coasting us billions and billions of dollars to build, and another billions and billions of dollars to operate.” after hearing this it got thinking about how things can be done differently in this country when it comes to how we could change our criminal justice system so that it doesn’t unintentionally contribute to discipline policies that tend to unintentionally shovel kids from low income communities into prison because while the “school to prison pipeline” isn’t as bad as it was in the 90’s and early 2000’s it’s still a major problem in low income communities. Because according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union which explains that zero tolerance policies criminalize small infractions and get police involved when the school should be handling the situations themselves “‘Zero-tolerance’ policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.” which is something I agree with but the ACLU makes it seem as if school officials are going out of their way to hold minority students back in education and life which isn’t the case as most times it’s unintentional that a school’s discipline policy is unfair towards minority students which brings me to how a school’s discipline policy is crafted.

In an article titled “Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in School Discipline among U.S. High School Students: 1991-2005” written by John M. Wallace, Jr., Ph.D. where he writes about a study he did about the racial, ethnic, and gender differences in school discipline. In the study he writes about how zero tolerance policies are rooted historically to federal drug policies but doesn’t say that they’re an exact copy of them as in the article he states “School-based zero tolerance policies are rooted historically in federal drug policies designed to deter drug trafficking through immediate, harsh, and legally mandated punishments (Verdugo, 2002).” that quote tells me that school officials craft their discipline policies to be harsh and have some kind of mandated punishment which is something that schools shouldn’t be doing. He does acknowledge in the article that schools are not doing this intentionally. In my opinion school administrators need to really look at their disciplinary policies before they make them official as many students that get in trouble for breaking rule set out in those policies are doing so without even knowing because most students don’t read the student handbook they’re given at the start of the school year they just throw them in the trash. Also many parents never even see the handbook with the school’s discipline policy written in it either because their child didn’t give it to them or the child threw it away. John M. Wallace also writes about how every study on racial differences in enforcing discipline policies always finds that black student are suspended or expelled at higher rates than white students. He also states that the studies tend to leave out four areas which he believes are important to figuring out what’s wrong with a school’s discipline policy “Virtually every study that has examined racial differences in school discipline has found that Black youth are more likely than White youth to be suspended and to be expelled (The Civil Rights Project/Advancement Project, 2000). Beyond this consistent finding, however, there are at least four important areas related to racial and ethnic differences in school discipline that past research has not addressed adequately.” I agree with this because the groups that study school discipline policies and race may have some kind of agenda or may only be interested in appealing to people who share their views on the subject which isn’t something that helps their cause. John M. Wallace goes on to explain each of the four areas that he says studies leave out of their research with those being “One important topic that relatively little research has examined is the extent to which there are racial or ethnic differences in less severe school disciplinary practices that might precede serious disciplinary measures like suspension and expulsion. Beginning to address this gap in the literature, a recent study of 19 middle schools in a large Midwestern public school district found that Black youth were referred to the office more often than White youth (Skiba et al., 2002). Interestingly, the reasons that Black and White youth were sent to the office were different, with Black students being sent to the office for more subjective reasons like ‘disrespect’ and ‘perceived threat’ while White students were more likely to be referred for more objective reasons that included smoking, vandalism, and leaving school without permission. The results of the study led the authors to conclude that differences in Black and White youths’ rates of suspension are due, in large part, to disproportionate office referrals (Skiba et al., 2002). In light of the limited body of research on racial and ethnic differences in minor disciplinary practices (e.g., office referrals) and the potential importance of minor disciplinary practices as “gateways” to suspension, these practices are an important topic for additional research. A second area of research that past research has failed to address adequately is the extent to which other racial or ethnic groups besides Black youth are also more likely than White youth to receive school disciplinary actions. One of the few studies to examine school discipline for other groups of young people used data from 1996-1997 on suspension among White, Black, and Hispanic students from 142 schools from a school district in west central Florida (Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003). The study reported that Hispanic students were more likely than White students to be suspended but less likely than Blacks to be suspended (Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003). The only national study on racial and ethnic differences in disciplinary disproportionality that we were able to find examined parents’ reports of whether their 7th -12th grade child had been suspended or expelled. The study found that suspension and expulsion rates were highest among American Indian (38%) and Black (35%) students, at an intermediate level among Hispanic students (20%) and lowest among White (15%) and Asian American (13%) students (Hoffman & Llagas, 2003).” that data should always be included when trying to figure out if a school’s discipline policy has a racial, gender, or ethnic bias. He then goes on to explain a third area he believes is important which is the change in disciplinary practices over time something that all schools do as communities change income levels and racial and ethnic makeup of the people who live in them. With that being said people need to remember that communities don’t stay the same as people more up the income bracket or move out of a neighborhoods for different reasons such as crime rate being too high or something else entirely. “A third important under-investigated topic in the relationship between school discipline and race ethnicity concerns changes in the application of disciplinary practices over time. Recent research suggests that exclusionary disciplinary practices have been used with increasing frequency, at least since the broad implementation of school-based zero-tolerance policies in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, to our knowledge, no study has examined explicitly trends in school disciplinary practices over time, or across racial and ethnic groups (see Raffaele Mendez, Knoff, & Ferron, 2002). A fourth important issue that past research has not explored adequately is the extent to which key socio-demographic variables, potentially confounded with race and ethnicity, act to either moderate or mediate the relationship between race and ethnicity and school discipline. A moderator is a variable that influences the strength of the relationship between two variables; a mediator is a variable that explains the relationship between two variables. Although there are differences in the specific findings, some previous studies suggest that gender may moderate the relationship between school discipline and race; that is, the strength of the relationship between school discipline and race may vary, depending upon students’ gender. For example, some authors have found that Black males have the highest suspension rates, followed by White males, Black females, and White females (Skiba et al., 2002), whereas others find that Black females’ rates are higher than White males’ and females’ (e.g., Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003). Given the lack of consistency in the findings of the relationships between gender and racial and ethnic differences, further research is merited.” When you take those areas into account when doing research on racial bias in school discipline policies it becomes clear that when groups do research on the supposed racial bias of a school’s discipline policy they may intentionally be leaving out data and research that doesn’t suit the narrative they’re trying to present about school disciplinary policies.

       There may also be a connection to teacher expectations and a school’s discipline policy that could explain student behavior because according to an article written by Rebecca Kline titled “Teachers Expect Less From Black and Latino Students” where she talks about how teachers expect less from minority students and how those expectations have an effect on the student’s academic performance she states in her article that teachers had lower expectations of disadvantaged students as well as students of color and that affected their grades in school “But teachers had lower expectations for disadvantaged students and students of color, the researchers found. Teachers thought a college degree was 47 percent less likely for African-American students than for white peers, and 53 percent less likely for low-income students than for students from more affluent families. Teachers thought Hispanic students were 42 percent less likely than white students to graduate from college, the study found.” so if this is true for student performance academically then the same could be said for student behavior and teacher expectations as well. If it is true then there may be students that could internalize a teacher’s expectations of them and while some may want to prove the teacher wrong some may just act as the teacher expects them to. I bring this up because sometimes teachers if they had a student’s sibling in their class who had gotten in trouble in the class the teacher may think that the sibling of their last student may act the same way I know this because I’ve had some of the same teachers as my older brother and many of them thought I would act or be just like him and I wasn’t but they expected that I was just like him I wanted to show the teachers that I wasn’t anything like my older brother but there may be some students who may adopt a mentality of “might as well” if teachers and school administrators already think about a student a certain way then that may have some effect on a student’s behavior in school as well as toward his or her teachers.   

      I’ll restate that school officials are not intentionally crafting discipline policies that are bias towards minority or low income students. As not all discipline policies are crafted the same for all schools as each school is in a different district within a city or town and each serve different racial and ethnic groups. Many times schools are just crafting policies based on what administrators have to work with in a school district. There are ways I think could help fix this problem with one of the ways being that school committees should craft their discipline policies by asking the community they serve for suggestions on how to deal with infractions or ask students how they could discipline students for breaking the rules. Doing those things would improve the way schools discipline policies are shaped as well as removing any unintentional racial or ethnic bias that may be present in school discipline policies. As the first step in resolving what people believe is racism is to have a civilized conversation about the issue and exchange ideas as that is how we combat racism and racial bias in schools and other institutions across the country and abroad.  

Works Cited

Klein, Rebecca. “Teachers Expect Less From Black And Latino Students.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 07 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/07/pygmalion-effect-study_n_5942666.html>.

“Prison State.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

“School-to-Prison Pipeline.” American Civil Liberties Union. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline>

Wallace, John M. et al. “Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in School Discipline among U.S. High School Students: 1991-2005.” The Negro educational review 59.1-2 (2008): 47–62. Print.

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