Racism in Grade School And Its Damaging Long-Term Effects

Black students are likely to be more strictly disciplined than their white classmates. Now, studies show that this injustice follows these students all the way to college.

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According to a March 2014 report released by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, more Black students are severely punished at school than white students — despite the fact that more white students are enrolled in schools.

The study reveals that this begins as early as preschool: "Black children represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension; in comparison, white students represent 43% of preschool enrollment but 26% of preschool children receiving more than one out of school suspension."

The statistics shift slightly when looking at grades overall, but still do not favor Black students. White students represent 51% of the population, while Blacks make up 16%. However, this is disproportionate when looking at the number of in-school suspensions, as 32% of them are given to Black students, compared to 40% for white students. An instance of a single out-of-school suspension sees just a slight uptick for Blacks (36% for white students, 33% for Black students).

But multiple out-of-school suspensions show Black students faring far worse: 31% for whites, 42% for blacks. This is alarming considering that Black students do not even make up a quarter of students enrolled in schools throughout the country, yet they make up almost half of students repeatedly given out-of-school suspensions.

A study conducted at Stanford provided some additional insight as to how teachers typically punish their students. The same experiment was performed twice: first with 57 female teachers of different races, the second with 204 teachers (mostly white females, but also including males and people of various races). In both experiments, the teachers read school records, based on real existing ones, and were told the student has gotten in trouble twice. After they read the records they were asked a series of questions:

• How severe was the student's misbehavior?

• To what extent is the student hindering you from maintaining order in your class?

• How irritated do you feel by the student?

• How severely should the student be disciplined?

• Would you call the student a troublemaker?

The only difference between the records was the names: "The students were identified with either stereotypically black names (Darnell or Deshawn) or white ones (Greg or Jake)."

Incredibly, most of the teachers thought Darnell and Deshawn's misbehaviors warranted harsher punishments than those of Greg and Jake.

In the second experiment, the teachers were asked an additional question:

But this time, researchers also asked them to rate the extent to which they thought the student's misbehaviors suggested a pattern and whether they could imagine suspending the student in the future.

Again, with this larger sample, racial bias emerged. Students with black-sounding names were significantly more likely to be labeled troublemakers and to be more harshly punished. But, as a group, the teachers were also more likely to see the behavior as part of a pattern in the black student and to say they could imagine suspending the student.

The fact that this could be seen as a pattern and result in more suspensions is alarming because emerging studies show that these disciplinary actions are following students all the way to college. According to a report released by the Center for Community Alternatives, students' disciplinary records have recently become part of the college admissions process for many schools: "About three-quarters (73 percent) of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information, and 89 percent of those use the information in admissions decision making."

What's problematic about so many schools taking these records into consideration is they are already the result of what could have been racial profiling. So the possible bias of one teacher, who may wrongfully view a student as a potential repeat offender, could be impacting a student's entire future.

The report went on to analyze just how high schools and colleges handle this already subjective information: "Only one-quarter (25 percent) of colleges that collect disciplinary information have formal, written policies to guide their use of it … [and] almost two-thirds (63 percent) of high schools do not maintain formal, written policies regarding disclosure of student disciplinary records to colleges." This poses even more problems because the people handling the already unreliable information are not trained in how to properly analyze it.

The study provides its own recommendations to help with how records are used: to school districts, "Adopt policies that prohibit the disclosure of high school disciplinary records to colleges and universities," and to colleges/universities, "Refrain from including questions about high school disciplinary violations on college applications and prohibit the use of such information in admissions decision making."

However, the studies also point to the undeniable root of the problem, which needs to be targeted to eliminate the problem: the way some teachers discipline their students. A case of racial bias influencing the decision of how harshly to punish a student can have unintended consequences and negatively impact a student's future.

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