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Matthew T. Mangino: GAO finds racially disproportionate discipline in schools

Matthew T. Mangino: GAO finds racially disproportionate discipline in schools

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Black students are disciplined at school more often and more harshly than white students according to a report, issued this week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In 2014, President Barack Obama released guidance on school discipline in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to the guidance, public schools are prohibited, by federal law, from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on protected characteristics — race, gender, disability and sexual orientation.

When the guidance was released, incidents of school violence had already begun to decrease overall, but schools were still struggling to create positive, safe environments. The guidance was in response to the significant numbers of students who miss class due to suspensions and expulsions — even for minor infractions of school rules. Students of color and students with disabilities were disproportionately impacted.

This week’s report is the first government-sponsored analysis of discipline policies since the Obama administration urged schools to examine the disproportionate rates of student punishment.

GOP members of Congress have argued that the Obama-inspired guidance has led to more school violence because students who may have otherwise been removed from school have continued to cause mayhem. Republicans have even tried to link the guidance to the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The GAO report appears to support Obama’s concerns.

According to the report, the issue of who gets disciplined and why is complex. The GAO suggests that studies they reviewed demonstrate that implicit bias — stereotypes or unconscious associations about people — on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex.

Studies show that discipline decisions can result in certain groups of students being more harshly disciplined than others.

According to the GAO, one study found that black girls were disproportionately disciplined for subjective interpretations of behaviors, such as disobedience and disruptive behavior. A separate study used eye-tracking technology to show that, among other things, teachers gazed longer at black boys than other children when asked to look for challenging behavior based on video clips.

The GAO found that during the 2013-14 school year, black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.

Removing students who misbehave from school is counterintuitive. In “From the School Yard to the Squad Car: School Discipline, Truancy, and Arrest,” published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence in 2014, a connection was found between mandated leaves of absence from school and the likelihood of arrest for juveniles.

The researchers found that youth are more likely to be arrested on days they are suspended from school. The increased likelihood of arrest is strongest among youth who do not have a history of criminal behavior.

According to the Journal of Counseling and Development a suspension is more likely to cause a child to drop out of high school than any other factor, including low socioeconomic status, not living with both biological parents, a high number of school changes, and having sex before age 15. Students who are expelled from school are even less likely to graduate from high school.

The consequences of not graduating from high school are severe, according to the American Bar Association. Children who do not finish high school are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested as adults. Additionally, approximately 82 percent of the adult prison population is composed of high school dropouts.

The GAO report is a step in the right direction and should vindicate the concerns of the Obama administration, while quelling the rumblings that federal discipline guidance for school districts is unwarranted or overreaching.

— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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