New data released last week by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights signal that youth of color are disproportionately the subjects of harsh school discipline. The high punishment rates noted in the report are of critical significance not only because of their impact on student learning, but also because such discipline measures have proved to be a first step toward incarceration. Pervasive racial discrimination at all levels of the criminal justice system has relegated record numbers of people of color to lengthy prison terms and the loss of their most basic civil rights. Severe school discipline policies—including zero tolerance edicts—are contributing to this civil rights problem. African Americans make up two-fifths and Hispanics one-fifth of confined youth today. Yet instead of steering these students away from prison, current school discipline practices ensure that disproportionate numbers of students of color are trapped within the school-to-prison pipeline.
According to the latest data, which was collected from schools nationwide during the 2009-2010 academic year, black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white classmates. What’s more, African Americans made up 46 percent of those students who were suspended more than once. During the 2009-2010 school year, 39 percent of all expulsions were of black students even though they represented only 18 percent of enrolled students at sampled schools. These racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates cannot be explained, as some contend, by socioeconomic status or by higher rates of misbehavior among students of color. Multiple studies confirm that students of color receive harsher consequences than their white peers for committing the same offenses.
For many students of color, suspensions and expulsions are the first step toward time behind bars. Students who were suspended or expelled for even one discretionary violation in Texas were 2.85 times more likely than their peers to be in contact with the juvenile justice system within the following year. Each subsequent violation exponentially increased student’s chances of juvenile justice involvement—nearly half (46 percent) of students with at least 11 disciplinary actions came into contact with the juvenile justice system, compared to only 2.4 percent of students with no disciplinary violations. More than one in four African American students and nearly one in five Hispanic students were disciplined 11 or more times during the six-year study period. Researchers from the Advancement Project find that harsh disciplinary measures “push students out of school and closer to a future in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
In recent years, an influx of law enforcement officers in schools has done even more to direct youth of color toward prison. With law enforcement actively patrolling school hallways, student infractions that once merited a trip to the principal’s office now have a greater chance of leading to a police ticket or arrest. The Justice Policy Institute found that schools with a designated school law enforcement officer on duty had disorderly conduct arrest rates close to five times those of comparable schools without such an officer.
When it comes to being arrested in school, students of color are once again at disproportionately higher risk. According to the data released this week, 96,000 students were arrested and 242,000 referred to law enforcement by schools during the 2009-2010 school year. Black or Hispanic students made up more than 70 percent of arrested or referred students. Harsh school punishments ranging from suspensions to arrests are causing high numbers of youth of color to come into contact with the juvenile justice system at ever-earlier ages.
By increasing the likelihood that students of color will be diverted away from schools and toward juvenile justice systems, school punishments and arrests perpetuate a cycle of race-based incarceration that is devastating communities of color. Racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system have a cumulative effect, so youth of color who enter the criminal justice system early experience the greatest discrimination and are more likely to become incarcerated.
Once imprisoned, these youth will join the 1.38 million people of color who are currently incarcerated. This mass imprisonment costs individuals and communities of color in both the short- and long-term, as former prisoners are regularly deprived of voting rights and equal access to employment, housing, public benefits, and education. Renowned author Michelle Alexander has described this deprivation of basic civil rights to prisoners as legal discrimination. Because of the staggering racial disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system, people of color are disproportionately being denied basic civil rights and are therefore being consigned to second-class citizenship.
Recognizing the role that harsh disciplinary policies play in sustaining racial disparities in incarceration, concerned parents, legislators, and advocates are beginning to tackle the issue of disparity in school discipline. California and Massachusetts are currently considering legislation to address the spiraling suspension rates in their states. Several school districts are taking positive steps toward reducing student arrests, including public schools in Denver, Colorado and San Francisco, California. In Clayton County, Georgia, collaborative reforms led by Judge Steven Teske resulted in a 47 percent reduction in juvenile court referrals and a 51 percent decrease in juvenile felony rates and have since become a model for other states. In the summer of 2011, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Supportive Schools Discipline Initiative to develop and support alternatives to current school discipline practices.
These developments represent vital progress toward the dismantling of the school-to-prison pipeline, but ongoing efforts are still needed. At a time when our criminal justice system is defined by racial disparities, school policies with a demonstrated disparate impact on students of color and with the potential to place students on the path of classroom to prison cell must come under extra scrutiny.
Rachel Wilf is an Intern with the Progress 2050 Department at the Center for American Progress.