Although it has been over 60 years since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, black students in the US are still more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions for minor violations of the code of conduct. As a result, they are more likely to drop out of school or enter the juvenile justice system.
According to the US Department of Education, black students constituted 32% to 42% of those suspended during the 2011-12 school year, even though they represented only 16% of the student population.
As racial tensions resurface in the aftermath of the conflicts and riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, we need to consider whether some of these issues have their origins in the manner in which children of color are treated in our schools.
As a clinical professor of law at the Rutgers University Law School’s Education and Health Law Clinic, I provide legal representation to parents and their children in cases where they are being denied an appropriate education or are suspended from school.
This includes filing legal complaints, attending meetings and assessing the appropriateness of a student’s educational program. At the clinic, my colleagues and I have seen firsthand the disparities in the treatment and resources provided by schools. And often, I have seen that suspension of young black students begins as early as kindergarten.
Educational inequities for black kids
Our educational system continues to fail children of color.
Research shows that black males are disproportionately more likely to be placed in special education and classified as mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed.
They are also more likely to be placed in segregated placements, more likely to be educated in poorly performing schools and more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system for infractions that occur in school.
They are also the least likely to be provided the positive supports and the assistance that they need in order to succeed.
None of this is new.
Children of color have historically been subjected to educational inequities. After the landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, where the US Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to maintain segregated schools, practices and policies were developed to maintain segregated settings.
States in the South refused to comply with Brown, while other parts of the country developed practices such as IQ testing and tracking students into specific programs that often kept children of color in different classes from their white counterparts.
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), headed by Marian Wright Edelman, was one of the first organizations to look at the disparities in access to education. In its groundbreaking report in 1975, “School Suspensions: Are They Helping Children?,” the CDF analyzed the reports submitted to the Office of Civil Rights.
Although black students accounted for 27.1% of the students enrolled in the school districts reporting to the Office of Civil Rights in the 1972-73 school year, the report found that they made up 42.3% of the racially identified suspensions.
At the high school level, black students were suspended at more than three times the rate of white students: 12.5% versus 4.1%.
Persistent patterns of suspensions
These inequities in suspensions and removal from school continue to persist.
In recent times, the term “school-to-prison pipeline” is often used to describe systemic practices that ultimately lead students of color into the criminal justice system. These policies often cause the suspension or removal and sometimes the arrest of students from school for nonviolent or minor violations.
The vast majority of suspensions are not for serious or violent offenses. Most are for minor infractions such as tardiness, dress code violations or disruptive behavior.
Why suspension matters
Students who are suspended for substantial periods lose valuable instruction time and fall behind in school.
The unfairness of these practices increases gaps in learning and eventually makes it difficult for black kids to keep up in school. Researchers have found that the use of harsh punishment for minor offenses has a negative impact on children, including increasing the chances of dropping out of school.
The US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in its 2014 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) on discipline provides a stark example of how the educational system continues to fail children of color.
For the 2011-12 school year, looking at out-of-school suspensions by race/ethnicity and gender, black students on average were suspended or expelled at a rate three times greater than white students.
At the preschool level, although black children represented 18% of enrolled students, they represented 48% of the students suspended more than once.
Although black students represented 16% of the student population, they accounted for 27% of the students who were referred to law enforcement and 31% of the students who were arrested.
Prejudices against students with disabilities
Students of color with disabilities are also disproportionately suspended from school compared to their white counterparts. They are twice as likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers. And they are referred to law enforcement at greater rates.
Although students in special education represent 12% of enrollment, they constitute one-quarter of students arrested and charged with juvenile offenses.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) outlines specific protections for parents and their disabled children and requires that school districts provide an appropriate education and services such as counseling, social skills and other supports to meet their unique needs. However, the needs of these children are often not met.
Moreover, there are many protections that apply before a disabled student could be considered for suspension or removal for substantial periods of time. Often, these protections are ignored, and the services that should be provided are not.
Change is needed
Suspension of students for minor infractions is certainly not the solution. We don’t have to look far to see the consequences of policies that take students out of school and place them in vulnerable, nonproductive settings.
The cost—a life of poverty or incarceration—further perpetuates a cycle of failure.
Myriad systems have worked against poor children of color to deprive them of the educational opportunities that their white counterparts have taken for granted. Poverty, violence, inadequate housing and other systemic inequities place these children in a pipeline for failure. Most of us would not be able to endure the burden, if placed in their small shoes.
A great deal of change is needed to combat these pervasive educational inequities. The US Departments Of Education and Justice have begun to take some important steps by issuing guidelines to school districts to reduce the numbers of students who are being removed or suspended from school and encouraging schools to find alternatives to suspensions.
These are important steps, but much work remains to be done.