A Little Context on Racial Disparities in Suspension Rates

The Civil Rights Project is getting a ton of press attention for its new report finding that black students—and especially black students with disabilities—are suspended at much higher rates than their peers. But does that mean that our public schools—and the people working in them—are racist?

The study found that black students were 3.4 times as likely to be suspended as white students. That’s a lot! But consider this: Black adults are 5.8 times as likely to be in prison as whites. Suddenly the suspension rate doesn’t look so bad.

Now, you can make a case that our justice system is racist, too, and that’s why there are so many more blacks behind bars than whites. But even if that’s the case, nobody would argue that eliminating racism would remove the disparity entirely. We understand that all manner of social pathologies—poverty, single parenthood, addiction, etc.—impact the black community disproportionately. Turning that situation around is the focus of many school reformers and other social entrepreneurs. But in the meantime, we understand that those pathologies are going to lead to higher levels of crime in the black community.

So it is with school discipline. Considering what many poor, black children are up against, is it really hard to believe that they might be 3.4 times more likely to commit infractions that carry a penalty of suspension from school?

As for the students-with-disabilities data, this almost surely relates to the use (or misuse) of the “emotional/behavioral disability” category. By definition, students so labeled are more likely to act out, defy adults, get into fights, and so forth. If anything, what these data illustrate is that many schools are dumping kids with discipline problems into special education, whether they have a “disability” or not. The outrage isn’t that these kids are getting suspended; it’s that they are ending up in special education in the first place, which is often a road to nowhere.

It’s fine for the Civil Rights Project to publicize these data. But to insinuate* that they show our schools to be racist is simply irresponsible, and probably untrue.

* UPDATE: As Kevin Carey pointed out to me, the report admits that the data do not “provide clear answers” to the question, “are blacks and others misbehaving more or experiencing discrimination?” So it was unfair for me to charge the authors of the report with insinuating that our schools are racist.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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