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The hidden racism of school discipline, in 7 charts

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The video of a school police officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, brutally throwing a black student across the room after she refused to give up her phone is a visceral reminder of how school discipline can fall more harshly on black students.

Starting even before kindergarten, black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled. They're more likely to be referred to law enforcement or even arrested. And even when they're breaking the same rules, studies have found black students are punished more often and more harshly than their white peers.

1) The gap between discipline for black and white students starts in preschool

Black students make up about 18 percent of preschool enrollments. But they're far more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Nearly half of all preschoolers suspended more than once during the 2011-'12 school year were black, according to a 2014 report from the Education Department.

Even when preschool programs don't lead to better grades for students later, studies have generally found that kids who attend are less likely to have behavioral problems in elementary school. So sending preschoolers home for acting out means kicking out the students who could benefit the most.

And suspending and expelling 3- and 4-year-olds is more common than you might think. A 2005 study from Yale University found that kids are expelled more frequently in pre-K than they are in K-12 education. The study also concluded that black children in public preschool programs were suspended at twice the rate of Latino and Caucasian children, just as the Education Department found.

2) Black students are suspended or expelled at higher rates throughout their school years

The disparities that start in preschool continue into K-12 education. Black students, who make up 16 percent of the population, are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. In the 2011-'12 school year, 20 percent of black boys enrolled in school were suspended, as were 12 percent of black girls.

Teachers and administrators argue that sometimes it's necessary to suspend students because they're disrupting class and making it harder for other students to learn. But the evidence for that proposition is lacking. A study of suspensions in Kentucky schools found that students in the schools that suspended students most frequently had lower test scores in reading and math — and that was true even for students who hadn't been suspended. The relationship held even after controlling for school violence, poverty, and other factors that could affect schools' use of suspensions as discipline.

3) Black students are far more likely to be arrested at school

When police get involved in school discipline, students start down the "school-to-prison pipeline": Their disciplinary infractions at school turn into a criminal record. The number of school resource officers, police officers assigned to schools, has been growing fast since the 1990s.

Schools hired these officers due to concerns about school shootings and, in some places, gang violence. But a school with a school resource officer is also much more likely to refer kids to the juvenile justice system, even after controlling for outside factors, such as poverty. And nationally, the kids who are referred are disproportionately black, according to data from the Office for Civil Rights.

Some judges are pushing back at the creep of the criminal justice system into school. A juvenile court judge in Georgia testified before Congress in 2012, saying school "zero tolerance" policies — which sent kids to the court system on their first offense — were overloading the system and making it impossible to concentrate on, and prevent, more serious crimes.

4) Differences in behavior can't explain the disparity

A common reaction to the discipline disparities is to suggest that something other than race is at work — that they're a function of poverty, or that black students are simply more likely to misbehave. But analyses of the data have found that isn't true. Black students and white students are sent to the principal's office at similar rates; states report they commit more serious offenses, such as carrying weapons or drugs at school, at similar rates; and when surveyed about their own behavior, they report similar patterns. Even in cases in which black students do disproportionately act out — a 2008 analysis found twice as many black boys as white boys reported bringing a gun to school — they're more likely to be punished than white students who committed the same infraction.

A study by researchers at Villanova University found that the percentage of black students at a school corresponded with how frequently that school suspended and expelled students. Strikingly, there was no relationship between how often schools suspended students and how much violence and drug activity the schools actually reported. When it came to how often schools doled out punishment, students' race appeared far more significant than their actual behavior.

A 2002 study found black students are more likely to be disciplined for subjective offenses, such as defiance or loitering; white students are more likely to be disciplined for more clear-cut reasons, such as cutting class, smoking, and vandalism. And a sweeping 2012 study of discipline policies in Texas backed this up: Even after controlling for 83 other factors, black students were 31 percent more likely to be suspended for discretionary reasons, rather than because they committed infractions where suspension was a mandatory punishment. That suggests some form of implicit bias is at play that leads to harsher punishment for black students than for others.

5) The disparities are particularly striking in the South

(Penn Graduate School of Education)

Thirteen states in the South are responsible for the majority of black students' in-school and out-of-school suspensions nationwide, according to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania.

The differences were particularly striking in schools with very few black students. The smaller the black student population, the more likely those black students were to make up a disproportionate share of suspensions and expulsions.

Schools in the South are also more likely to still use corporal punishment, which also falls harder on black students. In the 19 states where corporal punishment at school is still allowed, black students are paddled more than white ones. But the racial dynamics are complicated. As the Hechinger Report explained in an article from Mississippi, black students are often being paddled by black teachers and administrators, and the punishment is in many cases supported within the community.

6) Black girls are punished at even more disproportionate rates

Boys of all races are disciplined more frequently than girls. But black girls are suspended more frequently than girls of any other race, and more frequently than white, Hispanic, or Asian boys, according to the 2014 report from the Office of Civil Rights.

A report looking at discipline policy in two big urban school districts — New York and Boston — found similar trends. In New York, 90 percent of all girls expelled in one year were black. In Boston, 63 percent were. No white girls were expelled during that school year in either city.

7) Dark-skinned black girls are punished more than lighter-skinned peers

(Lance Hannon, Robert DeFina, Sarah Bruch)

There aren't just racial disparities in discipline rates — there are also disparities in how black students are disciplined that appear to be literally based on skin color. Research from Villanova University in 2013 found that darker-skinned black students were more likely to be suspended than black students with lighter skin. This was particularly true for girls, who seemed to be driving the overall disparity: Darker-skinned black girls were suspended three times more often than lighter-skinned girls.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the subject of a 2005 study on pre-K expulsions.

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