Racial Bias in School Discipline


African American girls are disproportionately suspended and expelled from schools in the United States, revealing implicit and explicit bias against schoolchildren of color. (Justin Bonaparte/Getty Images)

Each year, many American students’ educations are disrupted by suspensions, expulsions, referrals to police, and in-school arrests. Frequent headlines report young children being handcuffed at school for minor outbursts, including a ten-year-old in Florida, an eight-year-old in Kentucky, a seven-year-old in Texas, and a four-year-old in Virginia. Children of color disproportionately bear this burden.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, Black students represented nearly 40 percent of all out-of-school suspensions nationwide. Compared to white students, Black students were 3.8 times as likely to be suspended, and 2.2 times as likely to be referred to law enforcement. Thirteen Southern states were responsible for half of all Black student suspensions and expulsions from public schools in the United States in 2011-2012. These children are burdened by a presumption of guilt rooted in America’s history of racial injustice, imposed by teachers and school officials blind to the racial biases influencing school discipline decisions.

In May 2016, an African American eighthgrader on the free lunch program was arrested in Virginia for allegedly stealing a carton of milk. Using harsh legal punishment as school discipline creates delinquency records that stigmatize children of color and expose them to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Funneling young children into the criminal justice system is dangerous, as many states have no minimum age for trying children in adult court, and  such prosecutions have increased dramatically since the 1980s. By 2010, more than 3000 children were serving life without parole sentences in America, and 70 percent of those age 14 or younger were children of color.

Children of color disproportionately bear the burden of disruption by suspensions, expulsions, and in-school arrests.