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School Discipline and the Prison Pipeline

A New York Times story cites research by the Department of Education that concludes that "Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions" during the 2009/2010 school year, based upon national data. Not surprisingly the story drew more than 400 comments from readers.  A few readers asked the very important question of what sorts of behaviors led to expulsions and whether or not it is the behaviors rather than race that result in school disciplinary actions.


A brief Google Scholar search turned up some recent research that sheds light on this issue. I immediately discovered two research studies that confirm the suspicion among many that the process is racially biased and does not related to actual behaviors. A study by Kelly Welch and Allison Payne called "Racial Threat and Punitive School Discipline" confirms the "racial threat hypothesis" which argues that where there are a larger percentage of blacks you find more punitive actions. They found that "schools with a larger percentage of black students are not only more likely to use punitive disciplinary responses, but also more likely to use extremely punitive discipline and to implement zero tolerance" regardless of behavior.


Another study was an exhaustive examination of a national sample of 364 elementary and middle schools during the 2005-2006 school year.  In this study, Russell Skiba and his colleagues found that "students from African American families are 2.19 (elementary) to 3.78 (middle) times as likely to be referred to the office for problem behavior as their White peers. In addition, the results indicate that students from African American and Latino families are more likely than their White peers to receive expulsion or out of school suspension as consequences for the same or similar problem behavior." 


Both of these studies include a comprehensive review of prior research that has arrived at similar or identical findings.


As I have previously noted school suspensions and expulsions inevitably lead to involvement in the juvenile justice system which in turn increases the probability of further negative outcomes, not the least of which is incarceration as an adult.  Little wonder that blacks and Latinos have filled juvenile detention centers and state and federal prisons.

Keywords: Randall Shelden, school-to-prison pipeline

Posted in Blog, Social Justice, Juvenile Justice

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