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The discipline gap 

Research shows Arkansas schools punish African-American students more frequently and more harshly than their white peers.

click to enlarge MARK JOHNSON: His suspension as a high school freshman in 2008 threatened to derail his academic career.
  • MARK JOHNSON: His suspension as a high school freshman in 2008 threatened to derail his academic career.

In Mark Johnson's telling, the other boy hit him first. It was the fall of 2008 and Johnson was a freshman at Prescott High School when he injured his back at football practice. The fight began after another student teased him about his back brace; the pestering escalated into a physical confrontation in which the two boys traded blows. Johnson was suspended from school for three days.

Gloria Majors, Johnson's grandmother, said the suspension itself was not the problem. "He shouldn't have hit the boy, and the boy shouldn't have hit him. ... We know they have a zero-tolerance policy as far as fighting. If you're hit, you're supposed to go tell somebody and not hit them back," she said recently. "My problem was that when they suspended him, it was right at the time for [end-of-semester] testing, and so he missed his tests." The other student received only in-school suspension, Majors added, meaning he was able to complete his testing. (She said she was told the student received special education services and was therefore treated differently under the district's discipline policy. That student, like Johnson, was African-American.)

Majors sought leniency from the dean of students and the superintendent, both of whom told her there was nothing she could do. Finally, she appealed to the Prescott School Board. "I told them I thought it was not fair for [Mark] to not be able to make up his classes," she said. "And I told them that I thought our first goal in school was to educate our children. This wasn't discipline — this was punishment, which is something different. Discipline is about trying to correct behavior. ... You're trying to help that person change that behavior, not just punish them."

Majors' appearance before the school board was a month after the fight itself. Then, the day after the board meeting, "a sheriff came to my daughter's house and brought a FINS [family in need of services] letter from the judge saying my grandson needed to appear in court." A FINS petition is a legal document that can open the door to the juvenile justice system; it may be filed by a parent or guardian, a school official or another adult. Majors believes the petition was filed because she challenged school district policy.

"I'd never heard of FINS before — none of my kids ever had to go to a court, thank God — but why did they send that, 30 days after the fight and just after I went to the school board?" she asked. "He hadn't done anything else. He had already been suspended. So the only thing it could have been is that I took those avenues to try to change things in terms of discipline." Majors sought advice from a family member who worked for a judge across the state. "He said, 'Don't let him get into that criminal justice system, because it can damage you for the rest of his life,'" she recalled. Majors hired a lawyer, and after two court appearances, the juvenile judge dismissed the case.

Perhaps no single issue in the United States burns as hotly today as the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement. Yet police shootings are only the most macabre examples of a much larger institutional phenomenon: From prisons to courts to schools, whenever punitive measures come into play, black people tend to receive a disproportionate share of the punishment. Black K-12 students nationwide are three times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. American Indian students are also suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates, and students with disabilities are suspended much more often than those without disabilities. (In this sense, the school's less punitive treatment of the other student in Mark Johnson's story departs from the statistical norm.)

click to enlarge GRANDPARENT ADVOCATE: Gloria Majors is fighting for fairer, smarter discipline policy in the Prescott School District. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • GRANDPARENT ADVOCATE: Gloria Majors is fighting for fairer, smarter discipline policy in the Prescott School District.

While a suspension may seem trivial compared to an officer-involved shooting, being removed from school for even a short period often has an outsized impact on a child's life. There is a growing consensus among education experts that "exclusionary" consequences such as suspensions or expulsions should be used as sparingly as possible. Suspensions can hurt students academically, stigmatize them among both peers and adults, create opportunities for them to get into trouble outside of school, and establish a pattern of hostile encounters with authority figures that sets the stage for later interactions with the criminal justice system.

The disparities in Arkansas are stark. In the 2014-15 school year, there were five out-of-school suspensions for every 100 white students statewide. For every 100 black students, there were 29 out-of-school suspensions. The in-school suspension rate was about three times higher for black students than for white students, and the expulsion rate was about twice as high. Black students were also more likely to receive corporal punishment ("paddlings" are still used in many Arkansas schools). Meanwhile, the suspension rates for both white and black students have increased over the past few years — a fact troubling in its own right.

Those numbers were presented to the state Board of Education in February by Gary Ritter, a researcher at the University of Arkansas's Office for Education Policy, and are derived from the discipline data that every traditional public school district is required to report to the Arkansas Department of Education. Ritter told the state board that "there is a clear disparity problem" in Arkansas. That's not surprising, given national patterns. The new and important thing about the Arkansas data is that it includes both disciplinary infractions and punishments, allowing Ritter and UA graduate student Kaitlin Anderson to analyze the linkage between student actions and the adult responses to those behaviors. Their findings deliver an even sharper indictment of racial disparities in school discipline.

The researchers' analysis shows that African-American students are disproportionately represented in both infractions and consequences. "That's really important," Ritter told the Arkansas Times. "[Black] students are being written up at higher rates, but even given that, when they're written up for the same type of incident, they're more likely to receive exclusionary discipline" — that is, out-of-school suspension, expulsion or being sent to an alternative school.

For example, black students are more likely to be cited for "disorderly conduct." And while white students written up for disorderly conduct are given an exclusionary consequence around 12 percent of the time, black students written up for that offense are given an exclusionary consequence about 25 percent of the time. Similarly, African-American students are cited for "insubordination" much more often than white students, and are also more likely to be suspended for that offense. About 19 percent of insubordination offenses result in exclusionary discipline if the student is black, but only 11 percent of white students cited for insubordination get such a punishment.

It is important to note that both of these consequences are highly subjective ones. Schools and districts may define offenses differently from one another, as may individual teachers and administrators. And in fairness to educators, some subjectivity is warranted: The severity of a consequence should surely vary with the severity of the infraction. Both the student who fails to follow a directive in the classroom and the student who publicly curses out a teacher may be considered "insubordinate," for example.

But subjectivity also cuts the other way. Ritter notes the data doesn't account for possible disparities in what is reported as an infraction in the first place, perhaps as a result of the implicit bias of adults: "We aren't standing at the school when the administrator observes a fight and decides which student involved to cite for fighting, for example. Or sees a middle-class kid be insubordinate and chooses to say, 'Stop it, go away,' and sees a disadvantaged kid be insubordinate and chooses to say, 'I'm going to write you up.' All of that could still be happening." What the data does show is that when a black student is declared to be insubordinate, he or she is more likely to be suspended as a result.

African-American students are also more likely to be suspended for less subjective offenses. Although a lower percentage of black students are cited for tobacco possession, they're far more likely to be suspended when they are. White students are given an exclusionary consequence for tobacco possession in about 27 percent of offenses, compared to 57 percent of black students. Possessing a knife is an offense that gets most students suspended or expelled — but even here, black students are slightly less likely to be treated with leniency. White students caught with knives are given an exclusionary consequence around 68 percent of the time, black students about 75 percent of the time. (However, Ritter cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from these two infractions, since they constitute a small percentage of total offenses reported by schools.)

Then there is truancy, which carries its own troubling implications. Most students, of all races, receive in-school suspension for this offense, but white students are suspended 6 percent of the time and black students 14 percent of the time. The disparity is clear, Ritter said, "but the real problem is that [out-of-school suspension] is not a legal remedy for truancy according to Act 1329 of 2013." For obvious reasons, it makes little sense to suspend a student for skipping school, but such is the over-reliance on suspensions as a discipline tool. The discipline data shows that in 2014-15, 29 schools in the state used out-of-school suspensions to punish truancy in 100 percent of truancy cases.

click to enlarge GARY RITTER: His research shows "a clear disparity problem" in school discipline in Arkansas. - UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS
  • UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS
  • GARY RITTER: His research shows "a clear disparity problem" in school discipline in Arkansas.

All of this data comes with caveats, Ritter said. While school districts are required to turn over disciplinary figures to the state, reporting standards surely vary across Arkansas's hundreds of districts. "We're not sure how it was kept — people don't have the eyes on it that they do with [standardized] testing data." Also, schools often place both infractions and consequences into an "other" category. ("Other" was the most frequent infraction type reported in the 2014-15 school year, comprising 38 percent of all infractions.) As for consequences, "we don't know if 'Other' means a very strict, exclusionary discipline or a visit to the office where the principal says 'Hey, don't do that again,' " he explained.

If one simply looks at the disparity in suspension rates relative to race, Ritter said, "this could be two types of misbehavior: misbehavior of adults, who are disproportionately suspending students respective to their race, or misbehavior of kids, that kids in this group are misbehaving at a different rate, and that these suspensions are perfectly consistent with the rate of misbehavior. Looking at this graphic alone, you can't distinguish between those two stories. ... It depends on what you're predisposed to think.

"But the nice thing about this data is they connect the incident — the infraction — to the consequence that follows. So we can, to some extent, distinguish between those two stories."

After Ritter's report in February, the state board requested the Education Department re-examine how it requires districts to report discipline data, and changes have been made in the current 2016-17 school year. Eric Saunders, the department's Assistant Commissioner of Fiscal and Administrative Services, said ADE has "added some additional codes to capture ... more specific information" about both infractions and consequences. Codes added on the infraction side include "cell phone," "public display of affection" and "cyberbullying"; those added on the consequence side include "detention," "parent/guardian conference" and "Saturday school." This spring, the board will hear from Ritter about findings from the 2015-16 school year data.

In an interview earlier this year, Mireya Reith, the current chair of the state board, expressed great concern about the racial disparities. "The Office for Education Policy has presented this report for three years, and each year the evidence is more and more revealing," she said. "The data very much verifies that African-American males are punished more severely than other kids. ... Each [year] we've asked OEP to go a level deeper, and each time it reaffirms it."

click to enlarge THE GAP: Black students in Arkansas are suspended at far higher rates than their peers. - RESEARCH COURTESY UA OFFICE FOR EDUCATION POLICY
  • Research courtesy UA Office for Education Policy
  • THE GAP: Black students in Arkansas are suspended at far higher rates than their peers.

Yet, Ritter said, there is also more than one possible explanation for the fact that African-American students receive stricter punishments than do their white peers. "One way is that I am an administrator at a school, and I could observe a white student and a black student engage in identical misbehavior, and then I could more severely punish the black student relative to the white student. Alternatively, it could be the case that black students attend schools that engage in more severe disciplinary strategies.

"What we've found so far is that this [disparity] is almost fully driven by different disciplinary strategies within different schools serving different types of kids. In other words, schools that serve black students tend to punish more severely than schools that serve fewer black students." Ritter was careful to note that such differences may "still be due to an ingrained racial bias: I might be an administrator at a school that's serving 80 percent disadvantaged students, so I have my views that are driving my responses." Although the researchers concluded that "between school differences" rather than "within school differences" accounted for most of the disparity, they still found "a small negative premium on being African-American when it comes to punishment."

However, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who researches racial disparities in school discipline disputed those conclusions. Shaun R. Harper is the executive director of UPenn's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education and the author of a paper published last year examining disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions in Southern states. Drawing on the data that districts report to the U.S. Department of Education, Harper and co-author Edward J. Smith found that 13 Southern states accounted for roughly half of all suspensions and expulsions of African-American students in the U.S., despite containing just 24 percent of the nation's black students. They then broke down the data by school district to derive a "disproportionate impact factor" for each one — meaning "the number of times black students are over-suspended relative to their enrollment in a district's public schools."

Harper said such inequalities are mostly due to the implicit biases of educators. "Very little happens in teacher and administrator certification programs to awaken the consciousness of aspiring educators," he told the Times. "They consume the same media as the rest of us and the same deficit narratives about communities of color." Often, he said, "people are not fully conscious about what they're doing" when it comes to treating African-American students differently than others. When he recently presented his data to educators in Georgia, he said, "there was sort of a collective jaw-drop in the audience. That's interesting because these were the people handing out the suspensions and expulsions.

"I think another point that's really important is the racial makeup of the educational workforce. Eighty percent of educators are white, and the overwhelming majority are women — white female teachers who never had any sort of consciousness-raising education around race and their implicit biases around racial others."

click to enlarge SHAUN HARPER: Says implicit bias underlies the disparity in suspension rates. - UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
  • UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
  • SHAUN HARPER: Says implicit bias underlies the disparity in suspension rates.

But might "between school differences" account much for the disparity? "Our data doesn't show that," Harper responded. "That's one of the reasons we provided data for 3,000 school districts, so people could see that these are trends that reach across schools that are predominately black and predominately white." (It should be noted that Harper's data covers a different school year than the UA researchers'.)

Vast as the "implicit bias" problem may be, it is not intractable, Harper believes. "I'm a professor in a school of education. We have to do a better job of raising the consciousness of teachers and aspiring principals before we send them out in the educational workforce. ... We also need professional development for in-service teachers — whether you've been teaching one year, five years, 10 years or 20 years. ... I'm not talking hypothetically. The center that we do here at Penn, we do dozens of [PD sessions] for teachers around the year."

Finally, Harper said, "we have to do a better job of teaching [educators] alternatives to suspension and expulsion." He advocates a "restorative justice" approach, in which students work to resolve conflicts in small groups or councils led by mediators, often their peers. "Instead of just punishing ... [you're] helping to understand why a student committed an infraction," he said. "The council tries to figure out, 'How can you help make this work?' ... This is about a cultural change at the school." In 2014, he authored a study of 40 traditional public high schools in New York City — all of which were mostly attended by low-income black and Latino students — that successfully adopted such an approach.

Gloria Majors is working to implement a similar strategy in the Prescott School District. In 2010, two years after the incident with her grandson, she attended a meeting held by an organizer from the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, a Little Rock-based progressive grassroots organization. Majors and others started the Concerned Citizens of Prescott, and the group is working with the school district to craft less punitive discipline policies. They're also laboring to improve prekindergarten education in the town as part of the "Good to Great" initiative, a project of the Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and Arkansas State University. A grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation funds the effort.

Much has changed in the past eight years, Majors said. Mark Johnson graduated high school and is now a senior at ASU in Jonesboro, where he plays football and has been on the A-State Athletics Director's Honor Roll the past two years. The Prescott district changed leaders several years ago, and Majors said the new superintendent, Robert Poole, has been receptive to her group's concerns. The district's student handbook committee also relented somewhat on its zero-tolerance policy.

"Now, they're doing real good," she said. "We have built a relationship with our superintendent so that we can go to him and talk about things that are on our mind." In partnership with the same coalition of organizations working on pre-K, the Concerned Citizens of Prescott has secured funding to help institute a training for faculty called "Conscious Discipline," an approach similar to restorative justice. The Prescott School District is also contributing to the cost of the training, which is about $11,000 in total. "It's a way to give the students self-esteem and ... [to help] teachers know how to talk to them [to] change their attitude. ... The emphasis is on positive behavior," Majors said.

Poole said he's open to trying new approaches to discipline. "The way I'm looking at it is, it's another way, another tool for teachers to handle their classrooms," he said. "We're all about educating the whole child, to help them become better citizens. In today's world, it's very important to learn how to resolve conflicts. ... I'm always open to new ideas, and if it makes it better, I'm for it."

This fall, he and his high school principal will be attending a conference on restorative justice in New York. "We'd like to learn more about it, all the ins and outs and everything, so we can bring it back here and start trying to incorporate some of these things with our teachers. You know, it's not an overnight approach — a one-hour [professional development] and you start doing it the next day. We're preparing all year for this so we can plan on professional development for our teachers for next summer so they can then put it in place next school year."

That being said, it may be a harder sell for administrators and faculty to accept the "implicit bias" arguments that researchers like Shaun Harper see as central to the discipline gap. According to the data in Harper's UPenn study, the disproportionate impact factor at the Prescott School District is 1.6 — that is, a black student is 1.6 times more likely as a white student to be suspended. That's lower than many districts in the state, but it's still significant.

Poole said his district doesn't discriminate against students. "To me, when kids are on this campus, kids are Curley Wolves [the school mascot]. I don't say, 'There goes a white kid, there goes a black kid.' They're students. Regardless of race, we want every student to be successful. ... Now, if a teacher doesn't treat that kid the same like they should? That's in that teacher's heart and mind as to why is she doing that. ... We want to educate all students, and if a student gets in trouble for something, all students should get in trouble for that. If a teacher handles it this way, we expect them to handle every situation like that in the same way."

Disparities in discipline rates are more attributable to poverty than to race, he suggested. "Somebody else from the outside may look at the data and see racial [bias] and all, but I don't see it that way. ... It more comes from economic status, and what sort of resources and training those kids have had before they get here ... regardless of if they're white or black. I think that has more to do with anything than a racial makeup. ... It's not that one race has an advantage over another.

"We're a high-poverty district. So many kids don't have access to preschool, and start off behind the eight ball before they even start kindergarten. ... For me, it's the quality of the preschools and the accessibility. I wish it were mandatory for every kid to have preschool before we got them. ... A lot of these kids are being raised by a brother or sister at home, while their single-parent mom or dad is out working." Poole commended the work of the Good to Great initiative in trying to boost the quality of pre-K.

click to enlarge ROBERT POOLE: As Prescott superintendent, he is receptive to new disciplinary strategies that aim to find alternatives to suspending students. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • ROBERT POOLE: As Prescott superintendent, he is receptive to new disciplinary strategies that aim to find alternatives to suspending students.

(Ritter said he and Anderson looked for a similar correlation between suspension rates and a whether a student receives free or reduced school lunch. They found that disciplinary disparities based on students' low-income status are "in the same direction but not as severe" as those based on race. "It tells roughly the same story, but not to the same magnitude." However, Ritter added, "I would say that if we're just discriminating on a different marker ... that's still discrimination.")

When Majors graduated from high school in 1964, the Prescott schools were still segregated. Today — unlike some communities, where schools are still heavily divided by race — all students attend the same elementary, middle and high school. The district is 55 percent white, 38 percent black and about 6 percent Latino; it's also about 75 percent low-income.

Majors knows there's hardly consensus around issues of race. "We still have a ways to go. We did a survey through the Public Policy Panel about our community and how people are feeling about it, and we found out that most white people felt like everything was OK and things were going good, but most black people didn't feel that it was going as well," she said. Nonetheless, she feels things are improving. "Prescott is really making progress in race relations. I'm just excited about how we're doing. ... I think if we learn to trust one another and talk to one another and communicate, then it's going to be a lot better." She's hopeful about a "ministerial alliance" working to build bridges between black churches and white churches in Prescott. And she feels a less punitive, more thoughtful approach to discipline will benefit everyone.

"I think if we can get that going, and each teacher gets that training and can apply that training, it would help students all around — no matter what color they are," she said.

Last year, Majors got a call from the school district about a disciplinary incident involving another one of her grandchildren (she has 11 in all).

"[He] was sitting in the cafeteria — he was just in eighth grade at the time — and this boy came over and whopped him. And we found out later that the boy's sister and my grandson were talking, and he didn't like it, because he was white and my grandson is black. ... And so we spoke to the parent and talked about, 'What can we do to stop this?' Eventually she took the girl out of the school ... I think she's back at school again now."

Ironically, the change that Majors had successfully pushed for kept the white student from being automatically given out-of-school suspension. "I was the one who brought it up: 'The first time you do something, you don't need to be suspended for it — just give them an in-school suspension.' Well, that's what that boy got." Majors laughed. "And that's what he should've got."

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