Black Students Disproportionately Suspended and Expelled from Schools in the South


A new analysis of federal data found that Southern schools disproportionately suspend and expel African American students at rates higher than their representation in the student population.

Nationally, 1.2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in 2011-2012, the most recent year for which federal data is available. Thirteen Southern states are responsible for 55 percent of those suspensions, as well as 50 percent of Black student expulsions from public schools in the United States.

The Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania examined data about school discipline practices for the 2011-2012 school year in every K-12 public school district in thirteen Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The report, released last week, shows that Black students were suspended or expelled at rates higher than their representation in the student body in every one of the Southern states studied. In fact, in 132 Southern school districts, African Americans were suspended at rates five times or higher than their proportion of the student body.

On average, African Americans comprised 24 percent of students in the 3022 districts analyzed, but they made up nearly half of all suspensions and expulsions. In 84 districts, all of the students suspended from school were Black. In 181 districts where Black students were just under 60 percent of enrollment on average, all of the students expelled were Black. Louisiana and Mississippi expelled the highest proportion of African American students.

The study found that, compared to girls from other groups, African American girls were most disproportionately affected by school discipline policies and practices. Nationally, 45 percent of girls suspended and 42 percent of girls expelled were Black. In the South, Black girls made up 56 percent of suspensions and 45 percent of expulsions.

Students who are suspended or expelled from school not only miss critical days of instruction, but they are permanently stigmatized as “problem students,” which disrupts academic progress. As students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to be held back a grade or to drop out of school, the racial bias in school discipline contributes to the achievement gap between whites and students of color.

Expulsions and suspensions also are strongly linked with subsequent involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems in a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The disproportionate discipline of African American students “is at least partly attributed to people having these racist assumptions about Black kids,” said Shaun R. Harper, associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who co-authored the analysis.

Black children “are not as bad as school discipline data suggest,” the study emphasizes. Rather, African American students are more likely to be suspended or expelled when teachers or officials have discretion to determine their punishment, such as when a student is deemed disrespectful or violates a dress code. Children of color too often are presumed guilty and dangerous by teachers and schools officials who, as the study concluded, “are taught far too little about disproportionality in school discipline and its racist undercurrents.”

The racially discriminatory treatment of African American students in the South is part of the legacy of our history of racial injustice. EJI believes a deeper understanding of this history is necessary for us to address contemporary questions of social justice and equality.