A new study has found that black students in Southern states get suspended and expelled at exponentially higher rates than white ones, an imbalance that experts have warned against for years. The “Disproportionate Impact of K–12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States” report, released Tuesday by the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, found that 55 percent of the 1.2 million black students who are suspended nationwide every year (and 50 percent of them who are expelled) are concentrated in just 13 Southern states. As if the statistic weren’t lopsided enough, black students constituted just over 20 percent of the total student population in these states.
The report studied every school district—rural, suburban, and urban—in the 13 states, from Texas up to West Virginia, and repeatedly found the same imbalance: In South Carolina, where 36 percent of the students are black, black students constituted 60 percent of suspensions and 62 percent of expulsions; in Virginia, where 24 percent of the students are black, black students made up 51 percent of suspensions and 41 percent of expulsions. Louisiana and Mississippi expelled the highest proportion of black students.
Why does this happen? In a press release, one of the study’s authors cites the “residual effects of Jim Crow, slavery, and unequal schooling.” A study released last month, “The Social Structure of Medicalized and Criminalized School Discipline,” this one from Pennsylvania State University, offered another partial explanation. This study looked at 60,000 schools and found that
schools and districts with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminalized disciplinary policies, including suspensions and expulsion or police referrals or arrests, and less likely to medicalize students through behavioral plans.
By contrast, “less disadvantaged districts” (which almost always translates to more white kids) tended to have more leeway in dealing with disciplinary problems and take a more “medicalized” approach to redressing them: counseling, psychiatric treatment, individualized education plans, eventually diagnoses or medications.
These two studies, while distressing, aren’t exactly breaking news: We have long known that minority kids get punished disproportionately in the classroom. Last year, the Department of Education called on schools to reform the “zero tolerance” approach to discipline, issuing new guidance on “Rethinking Discipline” that emphasizes the need for schools to be “safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning” and encouraged more counseling for students and training for teachers. And large, high-poverty urban school districts all over the country, from Los Angeles to New York, have already been drawing back from the practice of automatically suspending kids for the most minor offenses, like dress code violations or habitual tardiness. That's a start. Now Southern states need to follow suit.