A recent educational trend that is proving to be particularly problematic for minority students involves school discipline. Since the early 1990s, many schools have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to school code violations. The result is a near doubling of the number of students suspended annually from school since 1974. Suspensions have increased from 1.7 million each year to 3.1 million each year.
Minorities are heavily overrepresented among those most harshly sanctioned in schools. Nationally, black students are 2.6 times more likely to be suspended than white peers, and a close examination of academic literature suggests that black students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons.
In 2000, black students represented 17 percent of the student population but 34 percent of those suspended. As the number of overall suspensions has increased, so has the gap of racial inequality. Between 1972 and 2000, the percentage of white students suspended rose from 3.1 percent to 5.09 percent while at the same time the number of black students suspended rose from 6.0 percent to 13.2 percent.
Some hypothesize that inequitable racial treatment in discipline may be a socioeconomic issue rather than a racial one. Yet, multivariate studies have continued to find evidence of black overrepresentation in suspension—even after controlling for social economic backgrounds among students—suggesting that racial disproportionality in suspension involves more than just poverty.
Racial differences in punishment could also be accounted for in school behavior if higher rates of black students were misbehaving more frequently. Yet when rates of behavior for blacks and other students are taken into account, the differences are not relevant to report.
Many public schools are still operating under the 1999 “Zero Tolerance” initiative, which tied federal funding to this mandate. “Zero Tolerance,” which came about after the horrifying Columbine tragedy, demands that kids be removed from schools the first time they transgress, even for minor offenses. This puts them into the juvenile justice system.
Those who work within the juvenile system’s confines admit there's a better job of punishment than rehabilitation and re-integration into schools.
Part of the appeal of zero tolerance policies has been the expectation that by removing subjective influences or contextual factors from disciplinary decisions, such policies would be fairer to students traditionally overrepresented in school disciplinary consequences. The evidence, however, does not support such an assumption. Rather, the disproportionate discipline of students of color continues to be a concern overrepresentation in suspension and expulsion has been found consistently for black students and less consistently for Latino students. The evidence shows that such disproportionality is not due entirely to economic disadvantage, nor are there any data supporting the assumption that black students exhibit higher rates of disruption or violence that would warrant higher rates of discipline. Rather, as mentioned above, black students may be disciplined more severely for less serious or more subjective reasons.
As we head into a new school year, it is important for students and parents to know rules and disciplinary procedures within the classroom. Alpine School District (ASD), along with other districts throughout the state, discourage a zero-tolerance approach to discipline. In ASD’s handbook it states:
“The Alpine School Board of Education’s philosophy and goals emphasize a program of education for helping students improve their power to think productively, to discern between the significant and less significant, and to act competently, and responsibly. Students are expected to develop skills in making decisions and a willingness to accept responsibility for their own decisions, actions, and habits. Furthermore, students are to respect the rights and property of others and to act on the belief that each individual has value as a human being. …
“Self-discipline is the ultimate goal of rules of discipline as students progress from adult direction to self-direction. …
“Rules of discipline exist to help ensure orderly, healthy, and productive environments in schools and classrooms and are designed and administered so that they promote self-discipline, civility, and respect for self and others.”
With these goals in mind, an equitable education for both white and minority students is possible.
Hannah J. Wold is a BYU master of arts student studying teacher education. She is also a second-grade teacher in the Alpine School District.