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Race still at center in school suspension

April 18, 2012

Who gets expelled from school, and why? That’s a question Russell Skiba has considered frequently in his research. His most recent exploration of the topic, a study entitled Parsing Disciplinary Disproportionality delivered at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, examines the relative contributions of type of behavior, student demographic variables, and school characteristics to rates of, and disparities in, out-of-school suspension and expulsion.

As Skiba and his co-authors expected, they found that suspension and expulsion are a function of variables at all three levels. But they discovered a somewhat different picture regarding racial disparities in discipline. For racial disparities in suspension and expulsion, characteristics at the school or system level– such as the principal’s views on school discipline–were more important predictors than behavioral or individual characteristics. School level variables, the co-authors write, are “far more important in determining the over-representation of Black students in discipline than are any behavioral or student characteristics.”

The researchers found that:

  • After controlling for both poverty and the seriousness of behavior, African-American students remain 1.5 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension.
  • Students in schools with higher proportions of African-American students are almost six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension.
  • Students in schools where a principal supports preventive alternatives to suspension are 30 percent less likely to receive an out-of-school suspension and more than 50 percent less likely to receive an expulsion.

“[Race] continues to be a powerful predictor of the severity of school punishment, independent of poverty status or the type of behavior students engage in,” Skiba says. “In particular, schools with more African-American students are more likely to use more exclusionary forms of discipline such as suspension or expulsion.”

Skiba notes that the results are consistent with other recent reports, including a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that found national data indicate African-American students are far more likely than peers to be suspended.

“It is especially troubling that these results support previous research in showing that schools with higher proportions of African-American students use more punitive procedures, regardless of the socioeconomic level of the schools,” Skiba says.

“It’s no surprise that schools face tough and complex decisions in trying to keep schools safe and orderly,” he adds, but “if we really wish to make a difference in reducing racial and ethnic disparities in suspension and expulsion, these findings suggest that we would do better reflecting upon school policies and practices than focusing on characteristics of students or their behavior.”

Skiba, a professor in counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University Bloomington, is also director of The Equity Project, a consortium aimed at addressing issues regarding educational equity that is part of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU Bloomington.

Skiba’s co-authors include Robin Hughes, associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; IU Bloomington doctoral students Megan Trachok and Timberly Louise Baker; and IU Bloomington statistician Choong-Geun Chung.

For more, see The Equity Project at http://www.indiana.edu/~equity/index.php.

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