Suspensions and expulsions are among the best predictors of which students will drop out of high school. Studies show that a student who has been suspended at least once is more than three times more likely to drop out of high school in the first two years than a student who has never been suspended. A young adult who drops out of high school is more than 63 times more likely to become incarcerated later in life than someone who graduates from college, feeding the pipeline from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.
Last week the Department of Justice and the Department of Education jointly issued groundbreaking guidance on school discipline, taking a crucial, positive step toward dismantling the “school-to-prison” pipeline. As the Dear Colleague guidance noted, harsh school discipline policies disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT students. Recent data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), an important annual federal school survey welcomed by the Anti-Defamation League, found that African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled from school. Research suggests that these racial disparities cannot be explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color. To the contrary, federal investigations have found “cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students.” Other studies confirm that students of color tend to receive harsher punishment for less serious behavior, and are more often punished for subjective offenses, such as “loitering” or “disrespect.”
Why are some students of color, students with disabilities and LGBT students treated more harshly than their peers for similar behavior? Some might suspect overt racism, but unconscious bias and latent prejudice perpetrated unintentionally may often lead to harsher punishments, even when teachers, administrators, or school resource officers are unaware of what is happening. Current research tells us that unconscious bias plays a significant role in our daily interactions and understanding of daily occurrences. Policies alone will not change that. The best prevention is education. Bias is learned and can be unlearned. Creating safe, inclusive schools requires educators, students, and the communities to understand what happens when bias goes unchecked. We urge educators to utilize the Department of Education’s Guiding Principles of Reform to Improve School Climate and Discipline, which offers concrete action steps necessary to support the spirit of the new policy. Among other helpful recommendations, the federal Guidance urges schools to provide comprehensive training for all school personnel and law enforcement officers stationed in schools.