Desegregation can help fix racial suspension gap — Opinion

September 2, 2021 6:00 am

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In the 2017-18 school year, Minnesota students missed more than 85,000 school days due to a suspension. More than 60% of those days were missed by children of color, who make up less than a third of the state’s students.

Minnesota, like most of the US, has enormous racial disparities in school discipline. Students of color, and especially Black students, bear the brunt of suspensions and other disciplinary measures, representing a vastly greater share of school punishments than their share of the school population.

Severe discipline can have lifelong consequences. First, and most obviously, suspensions result in less instructional time in schools. Days spent away from school are days in which students fall behind. But they also damage students’ wellbeing and educational prospects in other ways. Academic research has found that suspensions and other harsh discipline are correlated with dropout rates, as well as the risk of repeating grades. Poor disciplinary records also interfere with a child’s ability to attend college.

Perhaps the starkest consequence of racially disproportionate discipline, however, is the way it leads nonwhite children into increasing contact with law enforcement and the legal system. Students attending schools with high suspension rates are more likely to experience arrest and jail time later in life — the infamous school-to-prison pipeline. In some instances, run-ins with school authorities can result in police referrals or in-school arrests. Throwing children into the legal system can alter the trajectory of their entire life, saddling them with a criminal record that can haunt them for years, and creating enormous obstacles to future academic or professional success.

Of course, it’s unlikely that any school could function with no discipline whatsoever. Sometimes, particularly when violence is involved, there may be little choice but to rely on harsher measures like suspensions. But researchers have demonstrated that students of color — especially Black students — are more likely to be harshly disciplined for comparatively minor offenses, like classroom disruptions. Schools also appear more likely to escalate disciplinary measures towards the legal system when a misbehaving student is not white.

Racial justice advocates have proposed a variety of school policy changes to reduce school discipline disparities, like reliance on less-punitive “restorative justice” techniques. But demographic analysis suggests another approach might also be effective: school desegregation.

Analysis of federal civil rights data shows that Minnesota’s most intensely nonwhite-segregated schools are responsible for its highest rates of student discipline, especially for Black students. For example, in elementary schools that are up to 50% nonwhite, about one in 20 Black male students received a suspension. But in the dozens of Minnesota elementary schools where between 90 and 100% of students are not white, nearly one in five Black male students were suspended.

Discipline is even harsher in segregated middle and high schools, where suspensions are more common overall. While about 15% of Black male students were suspended in predominantly white and integrated middle and high schools, that number jumped to more than 25% in schools more than 70% nonwhite. The pattern was even starker for Black female students, whose suspension rate rose from under 10% in integrated schools to over 20% in nonwhite segregated schools.

These gaps result in huge amounts of lost learning time for Black students in middle and high school. In Minnesota’s most nonwhite-segregated middle and high schools, Black male students lost over 100 days of learning per 100 students, an almost three-fold increase over more integrated schools. For comparison, white male students in most schools lost about 20 days of learning per 100 students.

Desegregation is hardly a panacea: There are plenty of stories of racially disproportionate disciplinary practices from integrated schools. And, many parents of color are understandably reluctant to send their children to uniformly white schools, fearing their children might be targeted for standing out sharply.

In addition, some of the disparity between segregated and integrated schools might represent other differences in the student bodies. For example, students in more segregated schools tend to be poorer overall than students in integrated schools, and from more disadvantaged neighborhoods — trends that might translate into somewhat higher rates of disruptive behavior.

But even with these caveats, it’s easy to see how school segregation can play a strong role in punitive school discipline. Concentrating disadvantaged students into a single institution can encourage that institution to adopt harsher, less forgiving responses to misbehavior.

A school where many students are perceived as disruptive may be quicker to suspend a student or involve law enforcement in response to a perceived infraction.

In a less segregated school, an unruly student might be dealt with gently, given special attention, with greater efforts to understand the roots of problematic behavior. In a segregated school strapped for resources, in which many students are facing significant burdens at home and in the classroom, that same problem might be solved with immediate suspension or a call to the police.

Minnesota can’t abolish the need for school discipline altogether. But by desegregating schools and instituting thoughtful policies that treat the harshest disciplinary measures as tools of last resort, the state can take steps to ensure that childhood misbehavior doesn’t become a lifelong albatross for students of color.

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Will Stancil
Will Stancil

Will Stancil is a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. His work focuses on civil rights law and policy in housing and education.