Race, Ethnicity, and School Discipline

Posted on August 1, 2012 by


I’ll admit: I got sucked in to some sensationalist coverage about changes to school discipline. Alarmist “journalists” described the new policies as imposing racially based quotas on school discipline.

I didn’t read carefully – it was just a passing skim on my smartphone – and not everything that shows up in the google news reader actually comes from a real news source. Nevertheless, I got all worked up and started writing a CrimeDime post in my head.

It had a bulleted list of reasons that racial quotas on discipline were a bad idea, including that we must respond to each incident based on what happened, not who was involved, that it would be unfair to victims, that data transparency might actually encourage some kids to behave worse if they knew their quota had been met… There were going to be diagrams and everything.

I was going to have a section on how school-discipline numbers get to be so disproportionate in the first place, including the fact that the behavior of minorities is already socially defined as more deviant, racial threat theory, victim reporting, harsh attitudes, and cultural differences between teachers and students.

Yeah, I don’t need any of that because when I read the coverage on the Washington Post, it turns out they aren’t doing quotas. They just want to reduce the disparities, hopefully to the point that there are no longer any disparities by race. Um, that’s exactly what they should be doing, y’all.

For our majority children, those who conform to social norms associated with power and privilege including skin color, language, accent, socioeconomic status, religion, ability, sexual orientation, etc., school discipline isn’t a big deal.

For middle and upper class white kids, routine school discipline is survivable and serious discipline is fightable. “I’ll get you fired and sue you,” says the entitled child of an attorney to a teacher… and the teacher knows it’s a possibility and backs off.

For minority children, school discipline can quickly become disastrous.

It leads to educational disengagement and lower performance. Here’s a thought: why don’t we take the kids who are having problems and actually take them out of school without providing any support instruction so that when they come back to school they’ll have even more trouble?

That’s exactly what an out of school suspension does. In school suspension with instruction costs money, and the kids who get suspended are generally not valued enough to spend those dollars.

While those kids are out on suspension, they are unsupervised because their parents aren’t wealthy enough to be stay-at-home parents or to even take the time off of work. Which gives opportunities to engage in even more serious crime, leading to opportunities to get in trouble with the criminal justice system, which further takes them out of school. That, in turn, leads to lower overall educational attainment, and the criminal record prohibits economic success in the legitimate economy and getting a job, which leads to greater participation in even more crime…

School becomes a path to incarceration. School house to jail house is a serious problem, and it’s a problem that white kids get to largely ignore, even those who are not quite middle class status.

Quotas, of course, are a stupid idea. Fortunately, no one wants a quota. They just want to eliminate the disproportionate impact of school discipline on minority status children.

That’s something we should all support wholeheartedly.