Disproportionate Discipline: African-American Students in U.S. Schools

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Disparities in the discipline rates of African-American students have been well documented since they were first studied in the mid-1970s.

On average, African-American students are between 2.5 and three times more likely than other students to be suspended, expelled or subjected to corporal punishment at school.

This racial disparity, although not present in every individual school, is consistently documented across grade levels, regions of the country, and type of school.

There is no evidence that African-American students are misbehaving at higher rates than other students.

Nor is the disparity explained by socio-economic factors. While low-income students are over-represented among students who receive severe discipline at school, racial disparity in school discipline persists even after statistically controlling for poverty.

Rather, African-American students are punished more severely for behavior that is less serious and more subjective than other students.

For example, African-American students are about twice as likely as white students to be referred to the office by teachers for more subjective offenses like disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering.

There is some research evidence suggesting that African-American students are more likely to be disciplined for violations of unstated interactional codes than for violations of disciplinary codes.

The authors of the study, "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations" (see RPM-Premium Exclusives for a full review), report that zero tolerance policies introduced in the 1990s have not reduced and may have increased racial disparity in school discipline. They suggest that racial disparity may, in part, be linked to cultural stereotypes embedded in American culture. The authors explain that stereotypes can influence thinking and behavior outside of conscious awareness and that the perceiver may unintentionally invoke racial stereotypes even when he or she does not endorse the stereotype. They also emphasize that individuals can learn to recognize the influence of stereotypes and overcome them.

There are reasons to hope that the injustice of racial disparity in school discipline can and will be ended. Many communities are working at the grassroots level to involve citizens in school disciplinary policy and governance, to hold schools accountable for fair implementation of school rules, and to create safe and orderly school environments that respect and support all students. (See "Mississippi Communities Take Responsibility for School Discipline.")

A number of national organizations are working to raise awareness and address the problem.

School and state data systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated, making it easier for local schools and communities to analyze patterns in student behavior and disciplinary action in their own schools.

Knowledge about the characteristics of positive, fair, academically-challenging schools has increased dramatically in recent years as has knowledge of how to implement discipline programs that help keep schools safe and teach mutual accountability and respect.

There are many sources of information on this topic. Below is a brief selection: 

Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.