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How schools push black students to the criminal justice system

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A recent study found misbehaving white students are more likely to get medical help, while misbehaving black students are more likely to face punitive measures like arrest and suspension.

David Ramey, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State, put his study's findings succinctly to the Daily Beast's Abby Haglage: "White kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem. Black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn."

The study, published in Sociology of Education, analyzed a data set of more than 60,000 schools in more than 6,000 districts. It found schools with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminalized disciplinary policies — such as suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests — and less likely to medicalize students by, for instance, connecting them to psychological or behavioral care.

The study helps explain one way black students are disproportionately affected by the school-to-prison pipeline, the criminalized disciplinary system in schools. And it shows just how badly implicit biases can feed the pipeline.

The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately hurts black students

A police officer walks with a student.

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When lawmakers began enacting tough-on-crime policies in the 1970s and '80s, some of the concepts trickled down to schools, which began outsourcing discipline to police through school resource officers and referrals to the juvenile justice system. The result has been a school-to-prison pipeline that acts as many kids' first exposure to the criminal justice system — and it can lead to more interactions with the justice system later on, because the lost school time and bad marks on their records can make it much more difficult to get ahead.

Beyond Ramey's study, there's a lot of research and data that shows black kids are much more likely to be affected by schools' punitive disciplinary policies:

  • Boys with imprisoned fathers are much less likely to possess the behavioral skills needed to succeed in school by the age of 5, a 2014 study published in Sociological Science found. Black children, who are more likely to have imprisoned black fathers, are therefore more likely to be set on a bad course before they start kindergarten.
  • Black students with disabilities are almost three times more likely to experience out-of-school suspension or expulsion than their white counterparts, and twice as likely to experience in-school suspension or expulsion, according to a 2014 report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  • About 70 percent of students involved in in-school arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Hispanic, according to SuspensionStories.com, which seeks to expose the issues with the school-to-prison pipeline.

So schools aren't just more likely to criminalize their students nowadays; they're more likely to criminalize their black students in particular. Some socioeconomic issues — black kids are more likely to be poor, and poorer schools tend to be more punitive — play a role, as Ramey's study found. But subconscious racial biases play a significant role, as well.

Other research shows the public holds subconscious biases against black people

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As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.

In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children age 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white counterparts.

"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."

Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work, as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with other white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.

These biases appear to have a big effect in the real world. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

As a result, experts already agree these subconscious biases help explain at least some of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. But Ramey's study and the other data suggests that schools are driving some of the disparities with their own biases, as well.