Punishing black students more often than white students not only betrays our values as people of faith, it’s a reminder that our nation’s painful history of institutional racism continues to undermine the promise of a high-quality public education for all. We can, and must, do better.
Addressing the extreme racial disparities in school discipline will require a shift in how our public schools hold students accountable, away from a punitive model that magnifies implicit bias and discrimination, towards a restorative model that seeks to reduce harm to repair relationships.
This will require changes to public policy and the funding to support those changes. We’ve identified FIVE Areas of Policy Change that experts say could make a big difference in eliminating discipline disparities and moving towards restorative models, including:
- Increased Transparency and Reporting
- Embracing Restorative Models
- Reforming Suspension Guidelines
- Improving Counselor-to-Student Ratios
- Banning Corporal Punishment
1. INCREASED TRANSPARENCY AND REPORTING
The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.Ida B. Wells
Without detailed reporting on school discipline, the public (including parents, researchers, school officials, and advocates) have no way of knowing which school districts are continuing to implement harmful discipline policies and practices. States that implement detailed reporting of school discipline incidents have a much stronger idea of how and where to tackle the problem.
Here are some numbers worth considering:
- Over 11 million school days nationwide are lost to suspensions
- Black students suspended 3.9x more often than white students nationwide
- Black students are 3.2x more likely to face discipline than their white counterparts, and often face more severe punishments for the same behavior.
- There were 106,000 incidents of state-sanctioned corporal punishment in 2011-12
- Black children make up 20% preschool students but ~50% of those suspended
These numbers represent a crisis in our nation’s public schools. Too often, students are removed from the classroom for trivial infractions. Too often, this happens to students of color.
The only way that we can begin to address these disparities in our states, districts, and schools is if we know what the problem is and where the problems are most pronounced.
With the U.S. Department of Education threatening a rollback of civil rights data reporting, every state must demand a transparent and comprehensive breakdown of discipline data, with demographic data including race, gender, grade level, disability, and socioeconomic status.
As people of faith, and advocates for a world-class education all God’s children, we’re calling every state to demand increased transparency and public reporting of school discipline data.
2. EMBRACING RESTORATIVE MODELS
We seek a restorative justice, not a retributive justice.Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Ending harmful discipline practices and eliminating racial disparities around school discipline will require school districts to move from punitive to restorative discipline models. The Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue defines restorative discipline as:
“a whole-school, relational approach to building school climate and addressing student behavior that fosters belonging over exclusion, social engagement over control, and meaningful accountability over punishment.”
Some states have recently passed laws encouraging teachers and administrators to consider and use restorative discipline as a first approach, as opposed to punitive measures that are enforced unevenly and take students out of the classroom, often for non-violent behavior.
Restorative models seek to address conflict and misbehavior with approaches that lower the likelihood of students missing time in the classroom. Evaluations of existing restorative programs show improved relationships on campus, increased student accountability, and dramatic reductions in disciplinary referrals and suspensions.
As people of faith we believe restorative discipline approaches are not only more effective and less discriminatory than punitive models, they are a better reflection of the heart of God.
We’re calling on state governments to encourage the use of restorative discipline practices and provide implementation training and support for teachers and administrators.
3. REFORMING SUSPENSION GUIDELINES
When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.Angela Davis
Suspensions and expulsions remove kids from the classroom, raising the chance that the student will drop out, fail to graduate, repeat a grade, or move into the juvenile justice system. As such, these “push-out” practices are a significant driver of the school-to-prison pipeline.
11,360,004 days. 66 million hours. 63,000 school years.
This was the instructional time lost in 2015-16 to students serving out-of-school suspensions.
These startling statistics not only repeat themselves year-after-year, but the racial disparities reflected in this data are also staggering. Black students lost an average of 66 days per 100 students to suspension, whereas white students lost only 14 days per 100 students. This means black students lose 5x more instructional time to suspension compared to their white peers.
Consider the following examples:
- In Texas, a student was suspended for bringing his science project to school
- In Louisiana, a student was suspended for wearing dreadlocks
- In Florida, a student was suspended for tackling a gunman
- Over 50,000 preschoolers are suspended nationwide every year
Most states cede decisions about suspension guidelines to local school districts, which, in turn, give school administrators broad latitude in what students can be suspended for. Offensives like “insubordination”, disruptive behavior, dress code violations, profanity, poor attendance, and “violating school rules,” are poorly defined, unevenly enforced across the state (and even within districts) and allow for students to be suspended for minor offenses and non-violent behavior.
While student safety should not be compromised, 11 million days of learning lost every year to suspensions, many of them for minor offenses and non-violent behavior is unacceptable.
We are calling on state governments to 1) Clearly define the offenses for which students can be suspended or expelled. This includes the removal of vague or victim-free offenses from the list, and 2) Eliminate suspensions or expulsions for students 6th grade or younger.
4. IMPROVING COUNSELOR-TO-STUDENT RATIOS
When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting and less scary.Fred Rogers
Educational experts recommend a minimum of 1 counselor for every 250 students.
And yet, our schools remain woefully understaffed when it comes to serving our children’s needs. Over 14 million students attend schools without a mental health professional. 90% of our nation’s children are in learning environments that fail to meet the minimum, and only 3 states in the entire country (MT, VT, and NH) have an adequate number of counselors.
72% of children in the United States experience a traumatic event before they reach 18.
In many cases a school counselor is the first to see a student following a traumatic event, suffering from depression or severe illness, or dealing with a bout of anxiety and extreme stress. The presence of school counselors contributes to measurable improvements in attendance, achievement, discipline, and graduation rates. Historically marginalized students bear the brunt of this lack of investment, often attending schools that are under-funded and under-resourced.
As people of faith, we take our children’s inner-lives, mental health, well-being, and opportunity to succeed seriously. That’s why we’re asking every state to provide enough funding to ensure every school can achieve the recommended ratio of 1 Counselor for every 250 students.
5. BANNING CORPORAL PUNISHMENT
Corporal punishment is as humiliating for [the person] who gives it as [the one] who receives it; it is ineffective besides. Neither shame nor physical pain have any other effect than a hardening one.Ellen Key
Corporal punishment is illegal in our nation’s military, has been banned from the juvenile justice system, and cannot be used as a sentence for a crime. Hitting an animal to the point of injury is a felony in most states. Yet in many public schools, it remains legal to hit, slap, or spank a child.
19 states still allow corporal punishment, and in the most recent year for which records are available, over 106,000 students were on the receiving end of physical violence in their school.
A report from the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) demonstrates that, in addition to the potential for serious physical injury, corporal punishment “is linked to lower math and vocabulary scores, as well as lower self-efficacy and self-esteem.”
These harmful effects fall disproportionately on children of color. A 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that black students were overrepresented by twenty-two percentage points in the number of students on the receiving end of corporal punishment. In Alabama and Mississippi, black students were over 5 times more likely to face corporal punishment than their white classmates.
Hope for Students believes that states should act quickly to change the law to ban corporal punishment. We know that our nation’s most vulnerable students bear the brunt of the use of physical force against children. Teachers, principals, and administrators should not be given the option to hit or spank our young people.
We must move now to eliminate corporal punishment in every school, district, and state.
WANT TO TAKE ACTION?
Creating these much-needed changes for students will require strong advocacy at a state level, especially from communities of faith. This is where YOU come in.
Do you agree that suspending black students more often than white students is wrong? It’s time to let your leaders know. We’ve created these Advocacy Letters to State Legislators and Governors for you to personalize, sign and send to your elected leaders at a state level.
By adding your name and house address we’ll be able to target this personalized letter directly to YOUR state representative, state senator, and governor. You’ll also be first in line to learn of additional opportunities to advocate on this issue once the legislative session is underway.
Not from one of the five states below? Check back soon for a national advocacy letter.
Find the Advocacy Letter for your state leaders >>