The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Implicit racial bias causes black boys to be disciplined at school more than whites, federal report finds

(U.S. Government Accountability Office)

Starting in prekindergarten, black boys and girls were disciplined at school far more than their white peers in 2013-2014, according to a government analysis of data that said implicit racial bias was the likely cause of these continuing disparities.

The analysis, issued Wednesday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said students with disabilities and all boys also experienced disproportionate levels of discipline. But black students were particularly overrepresented: While they constituted 15.5 percent of public school students, they accounted for 39 percent of students suspended from school.

The disparity was worse for children of color in prekindergarten: Black students accounted for 19 percent of preschool students in public schools, but represented 47  percent of students suspended from preschool. Boys of all groups accounted for 54 percent of the public school pre-K population, but 78 percent of those suspended.

Addressing why disparities in discipline exist, the GAO said research points to bias:  “Implicit bias — stereotypes or unconscious association about people — on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex.”

The report was issued on the same day that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held two forums to hear from people on both sides of the discipline issue, which has been controversial for years. The forums were closed to the press.

It has long been agreed that discipline disparities exist based on race and disability, but there is no consensus on what to do about it. The GAO report noted that research has shown that children suspended from school lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time, and are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

A study of California youth estimated that students who dropped out of high school because of suspensions would result in about $2.7 billion in costs for the state, stemming from lost wages and tax revenue, increased crime, and higher welfare and health costs.

In 2014, President Barack Obama issued guidance to schools in an attempt to end the disparities and to adopt milder disciplinary measures. DeVos has been considering whether to roll back that guidance, and heard from supporters and critics of the measure at the forums. At the first session, DeVos heard from supporters of the Obama-era guidance; the second session was devoted to those who oppose it.

Supporters say the Obama guidance is aimed at stemming the school-to-prison pipeline and allowing teachers and students to find ways to handle disciplinary problems that do not ostracize children or cause them to miss considerable classroom time. Critics say it has led to classrooms that are less safe because troubled students act out in the absence of robust discipline.

The data analyzed by the GAO found stark disparities for 2013-2014, the latest available information. It found:

  • Boys as a group were overrepresented. They account for just over half of public school students. But they represented at least two-thirds of the students disciplined across each of six actions: out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement,  expulsions, corporal punishment and school-related arrests.
  • A similar pattern was seen for students with disabilities compared to their peers without disabilities. Students with disabilities represented about 12 percent of public school students, but accounted for nearly 25 percent or more of students referred to law enforcement, arrested for a school-related incident or suspended from school.
  • Black students with disabilities and boys with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined across all six actions.

The GAO wrote the report after analyzing discipline data from nearly all public schools for the 2013-2014 school year from the Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection. The study authors also interviewed federal and state officials, and officials from five school districts and 19 schools in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Texas. Those locations were selected based on disparities in suspensions for black students, boys, or students with disabilities, and diversity in size and location.

Some school districts reported to the GAO that they had realized the importance of finding alternatives to discipline that “unnecessarily removes children from the learning environment.” The report said:

Officials in all selected school districts reported they are implementing efforts to better address student behavior or reduce the use of exclusionary discipline. For example, officials in all school districts said that they are implementing alternative discipline models that emphasize preventing challenging student behavior and focus on supporting individuals and the school community, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), restorative justice practices, and social emotional learning (SEL). For example, officials at a selected school district in Texas said they have implemented a classroom management model that uses positive behavior techniques.

To address racial bias, the report said, one school district in California said it had created a leadership team for equity, culture and support services, and developed a district-wide equity plan that includes mandatory training on implicit bias for principals.

Officials from that district also said they had recently changed a policy to increase the consistency of discipline actions across the district’s schools. Similarly, officials at a school district in Massachusetts reported they were working to build awareness among school leadership to address racial bias and the achievement gap through multiyear trainings. Officials we spoke with at a school within that district said they conduct trainings for staff on implicit bias and other related issues to reduce school discipline disparities. As some of the schools and districts we visited have begun implementing alternative discipline models and efforts to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline in recent years, we heard from officials in two districts that there has been difficulty with implementation due to limited resources, staffing turnover, and resistance on the part of some parents.