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Racial Inequities in School Discipline


This letter originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, January 7, 2019.

By Beth Swanson, Vice President of Strategy & Programs

The Chicago Tribune’s recent editorial “Race and School Discipline” (Jan. 2) is a flawed and narrow take on racial disparities within school discipline practices.

The Federal Commission on School Safety, appointed by President Donald Trump in March 2018 and chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, recently recommended rolling back Obama administration guidance to school districts that established protections for students of color and students with disabilities. The Tribune Editorial Board, as does the commission, argues those protections are unnecessary and that local districts should be allowed to set policies that work for their communities. On the surface, that may seem like a plausible recommendation. Until you review the facts.

Several studies have shown discrimination in student discipline. For example, research indicates that African-American and Latino students are more likely than their white peers to be expelled or suspended as a consequence for the same negative behavior. Even worse, African-American students are severely punished for small infractions, while their white counterparts who commit more serious infractions receive lesser punishments.

In other words, the issue is not simply that more students of color struggle with behavioral issues, as the Tribune argues. The issue is how that behavior is addressed.

A March 2018 study by the Government Accountability Office makes clear the need for protections for students of color and those with disabilities:

  • In 2013-14, there were approximately 17.4 million more white students attending K-12 public schools than black students yet nearly 176,000 more black students than white students were suspended that school year.
  • Across all disciplinary actions (expulsions, suspensions, corporal punishment, referral to law enforcement and school-related arrests), black students, boys, and students with disabilities experienced disproportionate levels of discipline.
  • In K-12, black boys and girls were the only racial group where both sexes are disproportionately disciplined across all methods.
  • Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.
  • Black students represent 19 percent of preschool enrollment, but accounted for 47 percent of out-of-school suspension.

When data clearly demonstrate the disproportionate impact of institutionalized inequity, the federal government must step in to right those wrongs with policies that both attack the inequities that persist — and support all students.