Study Tracks Vast Racial Gap In School Discipline In 13 Southern States

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Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania is a co-author of the new report. (University of Pennsylvania )
Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania is a co-author of the new report. (University of Pennsylvania )

For years there has been mounting evidence that U.S. schools suspend and expel African-American students at higher rates than white students. A new study by the University of Pennsylvania singles out 13 Southern states where the problem is most dire.

Schools in these states were responsible for more than half of all suspensions and exclusions of black students nationwide.

"Black kids on the whole are suspended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with safety," says report co-author Shaun Harper of Penn's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

The 13 states named in the study are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

The researchers examined more than 3,000 school districts in those states. In 132 of those districts, they found, the suspension and expulsion rates of blacks were off the charts, with suspension rates far greater than their representation in the student body.

"Blacks are only 24 percent of students enrolled in public schools in those states, yet they are 48 percent of students suspended, 49 percent of students expelled," Harper says. "There are 84 districts where blacks were 100 percent of students suspended from school."

The new study is not the first to document such disparities. Other researchers have argued that schools use zero-tolerance discipline policies to, in effect, criminalize misdeeds such as dress code violations or talking back to a teacher.

The findings come as no surprise to critics of school discipline policies. Deborah Fowler is with Texas Appleseed, a public-interest law firm that conducted one of the most exhaustive studies of school suspensions and expulsions in Texas.

"In Texas, out-of-school suspensions have decreased by 20 percent over the last few years," she notes, "but as the numbers decrease, the disparities for black students increase."

In Virginia, state Superintendent Steve Staples said educators are working to address the problems.

"We agree the numbers are troubling," he says. Staples added that Virginia is tackling the problem through better training of teachers and administrators.

And, he added, those efforts are showing some results: "We've seen the short-term-suspension numbers drop, the long-term suspensions drop, the referrals to law enforcement drop."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For years, there has been mounting evidence that schools across the country suspend and expel black students at a much higher rate than white students. Today, a study by the University of Pennsylvania singles out 13 Southern states where the problem is worst. Here's NPR's Claudio Sanchez.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Schools in these states were responsible for more than half of all suspensions and expulsions of black students nationwide.

SHAUN HARPER: Black kids, on the whole, are suspended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with safety.

SANCHEZ: Shaun Harper is with the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. He co-authored the report which looked at a total of 3,022 school districts. In 132 of them, the suspension and expulsion rates of blacks were off the charts.

HARPER: In those 132 districts, blacks were suspended at five times or higher their representation in the student body. There were 84 districts where blacks were 100 percent of the students suspended from public schools.

SANCHEZ: Now, Harper says most people presume that because these schools are in the South, they enroll more black kids than anywhere else, and that's why their expulsion and suspension rates are higher. Wrong, says Harper.

HARPER: Blacks are only 24 percent of the students enrolled in public schools in those states, yet they are 48 percent of students suspended and 49 percent of students expelled.

SANCHEZ: Harper's study is not the first to document these disparities. Other researchers have argued that schools today use so-called zero-tolerance policies not only to criminalize kids' misdeeds - like dress code violations, being too loud, talking back to a teacher - but to punish black, Latinos and kids with disabilities more often and more harshly.

DEBORAH FOWLER: Absolutely true.

SANCHEZ: Deborah Fowler is with Texas Appleseed, a public-interest law firm that conducted one of the most exhaustive studies of school suspensions and expulsions in Texas, one of the states identified by Harper's study. Fowler says exposing racial disparities in how schools enforce disciplinary policies is important. But don't expect changes right away.

FOWLER: So for example, in Texas, out-of-school suspensions have decreased by about 20 percent over the last few years. But what you see is that as the numbers decrease, the disparities for African-American students increase.

SANCHEZ: Virginia is also one of the 13 states singled out in today's report.

STEVEN STAPLES: We agree that the numbers are troubling. We've been tracking them even before some of the national stories hit.

SANCHEZ: But state superintendent Steven Staples says Virginia's tackling the problem through better training of teachers and administrators.

STAPLES: We've seen the short-term suspension numbers drop, the long-term suspensions drop, the referrals to law enforcement drop.

SANCHEZ: The University of Pennsylvania's Shaun Harper says he's not sure how other states are going to react. But if his report doesn't outrage people, he says he doesn't know what will. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.