Black & White: Expert Debunks Myths About School Discipline

Aug 25, 2015

If you’ve got a kid in school, chances are you’ve got a handbook with a long list of rules and expectations. But data suggests that, in many schools, enforcement may be unequal, with black students getting more disciplinary actions than white students.

“If you’re an African American male, you’re going to get targeted at Springfield High, regardless. You can be a person who’s into school; they still gonna watch you.”

Josiah King has been attending the Springfield NAACP's alternative school. He hopes to return to public school, and says graduation is "a personal goal."
Credit Dusty Rhodes / WUIS

That’s Josiah King, twice expelled from Springfield High for possession of marijuana. He freely admits: He went to school stoned. But when asked, he says plenty of white kids did too.

“Ah yeah! A lot of ‘em. … All they gotta do is say they were asleep, or they got shampoo in their hair and it rolled in their eyes and they get a free pass.”

There’s no way to prove -- or disprove -- Josiah’s perception, but last year, black students accounted for more than half of suspensions and expulsions handed out at Springfield High, even though they made up less than a quarter of the student body.

A 27-point gap for black students gives Springfield High the biggest disparity of the three local high schools. Since the gap is somewhat narrower at Southeast and Lanphier, the District 186 high schools have an average exclusionary discipline disparity of 21 percent.

 That’s close to Illinois’ overall recent average, cited in a report by an education collaborative. But the report used Illinois as an example of a state with a higher rate of a disparity compared with many other states.

Springfield School Superintendent Jennifer Gill acknowledges that District 186 has a problem.

“The data is clear. We’re not walking away from the data. We just want to start to unpack it a little bit.”

So is it really about race? Or can this disparity be attributed to other factors, like poverty?

Russell Skiba, a professor at Indiana University, tested that theory in 2002.

Russell Skiba
Credit Indiana University - Bloomington

“This was one of the first studies to look specifically at that issue," he says, "but a number of studies have since looked at this issue. And what we found was that poverty made only a small and inconsistent contribution to discipline.” 

Other researchers have replicated his study, with the same results.

Collecting data from 19 middle schools in an urban Midwestern district, Skiba tested another popular theory: that black kids simply misbehave more than white kids. He found that, when it came to things like fighting and gang behavior, black and white kids were treated about the same. But while white students got sent to the office for things like vandalism and smoking -- infractions that could be objectively observed -- black students were referred more for disrespect, loitering and threats -- offenses that can depend on the eye of the beholder.

“What was very clear, across the findings we had, was that the reasons black students were referred were more subjective reasons. You know, even if you’re talking about threat, threat is something that’s dependent upon the perceptions of the person being threatened.”

But Skiba, who co-directs The Equity Project at Indiana University, says he has seen educators solve the disparity problem.

“I find that schools that I work with -- once they get to a certain point of being willing to work on this data -- are very creative in the solutions that they can apply. But the first piece is being willing to be self-reflective.”

Skiba co-directs , and has done extensive research on racial disparity in school discipline. His work has been cited by the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and Nightline. He has testified before both houses of Congress and been certified as an expert witness in court. He has authored or co-authored more than 30 papers, including The Color of Discipline:  Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment.

In the extended version of our interview, Skiba talks about 

  • how the number of black students in a school affects school discipline
  • several strategies that have been shown to mitigate disparity
  • what white students and teachers say about racial disparity in school discipline. 

You can hear it here: 

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