A new report out Wednesday backed up what parents, activists, and scholars have been saying for years: There are vast disparities in how different children receive disciplinary action in school. The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal watchdog, found that black students, boys, and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in K–12 public schools, with the disparities for black students and boys presenting as early as preschool. GAO’s analysis included interviews with administrators, school visits across the country, and data from the 2013–14 school year supplied by the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection arm. According to GAO, this report builds on research showing that students who are disciplined in ways that take them out of the classroom are more likely to fall behind, drop out, or get involved with the juvenile justice system—all of which can result in incarceration and decreased earning potential over a lifetime.
The researchers found that regardless of the kind of disciplinary action, the type of public school students attended, or the level of the school’s poverty, these patterns of disproportionate discipline persisted. The fact that the disparities resisted increases in income is of particular significance, as it contradicts popular conceptions of what drives disciplinary imbalances. “The idea that discipline disparities transcend poverty is something that is pretty important and has not been understood in that way before,” said the research team’s lead, Jacqueline Nowicki, in an interview with NPR. While out-of-school suspensions for black students tended to decrease as a school’s poverty level decreased—while still remaining disproportionate to their relative population—the opposite effect happened for boys and students with disabilities.
Black students in particular are still overrepresented among students who were subjected to punishments like suspension, corporal punishment, and school-related arrests. According to the GAO report, “Although there were approximately 17.4 million more White students than Black students attending K–12 public schools in 2013–14, nearly 176,000 more Black students than White students were suspended from school that school year.” Black students were also the only group where that disparity reached across boundaries of sex as well: Black girls were not only suspended more than any other racial group of girls but also at higher rates than some groups of boys.
The numbers were similarly stark for students with disabilities. Despite making up approximately 12 percent of public school students, students with disabilities accounted for “nearly 25 percent or more of students referred to law enforcement, arrested for a school-related incident, or suspended from school.” Add another intersecting marginalized identity and the disparities only grow: Black students with disabilities only made up about 19 percent of the total population of students with disabilities but accounted for over a third of those suspended from school.
The GAO report arrives at a pivotal moment in education, with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos considering rolling back Obama-era guidance to school districts that stressed that disparities like these are violations of civil rights law. And across the country, teachers are going on strike to demand access to resources that would help address these issues, at least in part, by giving them more time to devote to their students. Smaller class sizes, better pay, more support staff, and not having to worry about functioning heat or toilets would all help create an environment where teachers aren’t “mentally numb” and won’t see suspension or a call to the police as their first and most expedient option for disciplining a misbehaving child. Of course, better-paid teachers and pristine textbooks won’t remedy unconscious bias. But there’s hope that with data like this, schools will invest more resources into not only addressing and correcting bias in their staff but retaining teachers of color, more than half of whom said that poor workplace conditions were contributing to their workplace dissatisfaction.
The GAO report also noted that each of the school districts that researchers visited was already considering “new approaches to school discipline,” but they found themselves up against new and graver challenges like the effects of poverty and “a growing trend of behavioral challenges related to mental health and trauma.” What students need right now aren’t teachers armed with handguns or more police officers patrolling their hallways, but schools staffed with both counselors who can address trauma and teachers who can confront bad behavior without resorting to calling the police. And teachers understand that: In the interview with NPR, Nowicki noted that her team didn’t “hear anything about teachers feeling less safe when they were using practices aimed at correcting inappropriate behavior in a non-exclusionary way.” Looking at this nonpartisan research, there’s no denying these disparities exist—and to an alarming degree. What matters now is what we do about them.