clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Black kids are way more likely to be punished in school than white kids, study finds

A government watchdog looked at the data — and it’s not good.

Whether and how a child is punished for acting up in school could depend on his race, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found.

The report found that black students in K-12 schools are far more likely to be disciplined — whether through suspension or referral to law enforcement — than their counterparts of other races.

This chart shows the topline finding, demonstrating that black children are overrepresented based on their actual population in the student body:

A chart showing racial and gender disparities in school discipline. Government Accountability Office

This was true no matter the type of punishment:

A chart showing racial disparities in school discipline by punishment type. Government Accountability Office

No matter the type of school:

A chart showing racial disparities in school discipline in different types of schools. Government Accountability Office

And no matter the rate of poverty at the school:

A chart showing racial disparities in school discipline across different poverty levels. Government Accountability Office

GAO noted that “disparities in student discipline such as those presented in this figure may support a finding of discrimination, but taken alone, do not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.” So these charts may show discrimination, racial bias, and systemic racism, but there could be other factors involved.

When taken together, though, the charts present a damning picture: One would have to assume that whatever other factors are involved would have to apply across all types of punishment, all kinds of school, and no matter the rate of poverty — and apply particularly to black kids.

There is also good research showing the reality of racism in America. A 2014 study, for example, found that people generally view black boys as older and less innocent starting at the age of 10. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, an author of the 2014 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.”

Another study released in 2017 produced similar results, finding that Americans overall view black girls as less innocent and more mature for their age, from ages 5 to 14. Survey respondents were more likely to say that black girls, compared to white girls, need less nurturing, less protection, to be supported less, to be comforted less, are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex. The researchers described this as the “adultification” of black girls.

If people are more likely to view black children as less innocent and older, they may be more likely to accept harsher punishments against these kids. The GAO study suggests that may be the case — and it’s backed by other research.

This is not the first report to find something like this

It would be one thing if the GAO report was the first with findings like this, but there’s a lot of research and data that shows black kids are disproportionately punished in schools:

  • Federal civil rights investigations have found that black students are punished more harshly than white students in schools even when black and white students engage in identical or similar behavior.
  • Black students with disabilities are almost three times as likely to experience out-of-school suspension or expulsion as their white counterparts, and twice as likely to experience in-school suspension or expulsion, according to a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  • Although black boys face higher rates of school discipline than anyone else, a report from Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies found that black girls are six times as likely to be suspended as white girls, while black boys are three times as likely to be suspended as white boys.
Black students face enormous disparities in school discipline. Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies
  • A study published in Sociology of Education analyzed a data set of more than 60,000 schools in more than 6,000 districts. It found that schools with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminal justice-oriented disciplinary policies — such as suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests — and less likely to connect them to psychological or behavioral care.
  • Boys with imprisoned fathers are much less likely to possess the behavioral skills needed to succeed in school by the age of 5, a study published in Sociological Science found. Black children, who are more likely to have imprisoned fathers, are therefore more likely to be set on a bad course before they start kindergarten.

The harsher punishments are part of a decades-long trend. As lawmakers and politicians began enacting “tough on crime” policies in the 1970s through the ’90s, some of the concepts have trickled down to schools, which started outsourcing discipline to school resource officers and referrals to the juvenile justice system.

This has created what some critics refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Essentially, as school punishments become harsher — and especially as they increasingly involve police — they create a pathway for students to get involved in the criminal justice system fairly early on in their lives, which can heighten the risk of delinquent or criminal activity in the future. (For one, a criminal record makes it harder to get and hold down a legal means of income.) And since black kids are disproportionately affected, this pipeline reflects the broader racial disparities in the criminal justice system as a whole.

Put another way: These are places that are supposed to educate children and lead them to happy, productive lives. But these policies may be having the opposite effect for a specific segment of the population.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.