Every year, U.S. public schools suspend enough students to fill 45 Super Bowl stadiums—nearly 3.5 million, amounting to nearly 18 million missed days of school. It’s a policy that negatively affects learning of all students, but in the United States, of course, there is also a racial gap: Studies show students of color are suspended at three times the rate of white students.
With less time in the classroom, this gap in discipline feeds a gap in academic achievement. The more students are suspended, the less likely they are to succeed both in school and after they graduate. Children of color are overdisciplined and excessively punished as early as preschool — and overdiscipline feeds into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D.-Conn), a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently argued at a panel hosted by the Center for American Progress that these are “unintended consequences” of the No Child Left Behind policy of the George W. Bush administration. He argues that NCLB made schools strictly accountable for bringing all students to “proficiency,” and that over time, “one way that schools figured out to get around that requirement was to get rid of students who were a little bit harder to teach.”
But others are skeptical that overdiscipline is simply a matter of overburdened schools, saying the discipline gap is created by implicit bias and systemic racism. Brittany Packnett, Vice President for National Community Alliances for Teach for America, argues that ending the discipline gap is part of the larger struggle against mass incarceration.
In January 2014, the Obama administration released a set of guidelines to address racial disparities in the U.S. education system, offering resources for schools to address the racial gap in suspensions and decrease overall suspensions. The guidelines also warned that districts with high racial disparities could be charged with violating students’ civil rights.
In November 2017, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with several groups critical of the guidelines, signaling she might be rescinding them — as she has indicated for many other civil rights guidelines offered up during the Obama administration. Deborah York, a former teacher who is critical of the Obama guidelines, was among those with whom education officials met. In 2009, York claimed a first grader “body slammed” her. The Edina Public School District did not take disciplinary action, leading to York resigning and reaching a $100,000 settlement with the school district.
Sen. Murphy argues that such cases are anecdotal, and defenders of the guidelines cite statistical evident. In his state of Connecticut, the data collected on suspensions and expulsions showed “60 percent of expulsions in Connecticut fit this category: simple violations of school policy” such as talking back to a teacher or skipping class.
He says, “The suspensions and explosions that were happening all across the country — they weren’t making schools any safer.”
It’s important to note that the guidelines are not law — they are just guidelines. The real work is in giving teachers quality training to confront bias and equitably manage their classrooms and schools. As Evan Stone, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Educators for Excellence put it, “It’s not just about discipline. This is about being culturally responsive. This is about classroom management.”
Teachers, as always, are part of the solution. Better training to confront their own biases and respond to the policies that incentivize suspensions could provide better outcomes. As Packnett said, “There are narratives about children of color that all of us are internalizing and believing, and it is coming out in our practice.”