New Study Finds Black Students More Likely To Face Harsh Discipline

Liam Day speaks to a new Department of Education study, which found a startling gap in the harshness of punishment based on race and sex.

As reported by The New York Times, new data released by the federal Department of Education last week highlights a dynamic I don’t think will come as much of a surprise to many people: black students, particularly black boys, are more likely to be disciplined in school than other students. Three and half times more likely to be exact.

Despite comprising only 18% of the students in the 72,000 schools sampled, black students were 35% of those who had been suspended at least once, 46% of those who had been suspended more than once, and 39% of all students who had been expelled. In all, one in five black boys had received at least one out-of-school suspension.

I’m not going to offer an hypothesis as to why this is happening. There are probably many reasons having to do with everything from the chaotic nature of the schools black children are more likely to attend to simple prejudice, both conscious and not.

What I would like to do is draw a line – a line from the school data to court data, where disparities demonstrate, I believe, inequities. As in the discipline systems of our public schools, black children are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system and before you argue that it could simply be that black children commit more crimes, consider the following statistics:

1) Between 1986 and 1991, the number of white youth arrested for a drug-related offense decreased 34% at the same time that the number of youth of color arrested for a drug-related offense increased 78%.

2) In 1995, only 15% of arrests of white youth led to detention, as compared to 27% of arrests of black youth, this despite the fact that white youth represented 52% of all juvenile arrests and black only 45%.

3) In a 2002 report, the Racial Disparity Initiative of the Council on Crime and Justice found that, though African-American males were more likely to use drugs, the discrepancy paled in comparison to the difference in the arrest rates between African-American and white males. African-American males used drugs at a rate only 51% higher than white males, but were arrested for drug-related offenses at a rate 400% higher.

4) Finally, in a report just last week, The Sentencing Project determined that the race of the offender and victim might play a role in whether a juvenile suspect is sentenced to juvenile life without parole. I quote directly from the report’s executive summary: “The proportion of African Americans serving JLWOP sentences for the killing of a white person (43.4%) is nearly twice the rate at which African American juveniles are arrested for taking a white person’s life (23.2%). Conversely, white juvenile offenders with black victims are only about half as likely (3.6%) to receive a JLWOP sentence as their proportion of arrests for killing blacks (6.4%).”

Overall, roughly 10% of young black men are in prison. It appears that we have, either consciously or unconsciously, created a system of adjudication that is more likely to funnel black men to jail than white men. Drawing connections in the data, perhaps the funneling begins in school and not in court.


Photo courtesy of Diego3336

About Liam Day

Liam Day has been a youth worker, teacher, campaign manager, political pundit, communications director, and professional basketball player. His poems have appeared at Slow Trains Apt, and Wilderness House Literary Review. His op-eds and essays have appeared in Annalemma Stymie, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. He lives in Boston, where he works as a public health professional. He is the Sports Editor at The Good Men Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @LiamDay7.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nick. Federal civil rights laws were designed to get around double jeopardy. IOW, if the feds take an interest in a case and the defendant walks in a state case, they can claim whatever it was is a civil rights issue. See Rodney King. So, technically, it’s not the SAME crime, but of course it is. Now, as with all things begun with good intentions, it can turn sour. See civil forfeiture.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Juror null is a good idea, a last resort. But when you do it, you have to recall that you are going against laws put into force by the democratic process. That is a big, big deal.
    Second, “harmless” is a concept most commonly found in a close-focus view. Drugs, for example, are “harmless” if the buyer and seller are willing. That’s until a drugged-out guy does something stupid and hurts somebody. We penalize people selliing booze and cigarettes to the underage. Both are “harmless” at least to the extent drugs are. We penalize guys for statutory rape which is only harmful by reference to the calendar, if both are willing. Not that I believe it, but see Rene Guyon, for example.
    And then, if juror null is accepted, what about using it without reference to harmless but in reference to the juror’s loyalty to a group above that to law. IOW, a crime with a victim, but in which the juror and the perp are of the same group and the vic is not.
    I might, for example, be hard to convince in a case of fatal self-defense. I might even think the duty to retreat is silly. I null.
    Not sure you want to go there, considering the likelihood that it might spread–everything spreads–to places you haven’t thought of.
    Lastly, nobody, black or otherwise, is forced into doing some of this illegal but supposedly harmless activity. I know we can make up all kinds of stories about rough this and tough that and lack of opportunities. But at the end, it’s an individual making a voluntary choice.
    Lastly, to repeat the firstly, juror null overturns the result of the democratic process.
    I personally think drugs should be legalized. But until then, I’m with the majority who might, stranger things have happened but rarely, be smarter than me about such issues.

  3. Kirsten (in MT) says:

    This is only one tool in the toolbox, and one that by its nature cannot address the school portion of the problem. However, I will once again mention that nearly everyone potentially has an opportunity to chip away at this unjust imbalance before many of these young men get to prison.

    When serving on a jury, refuse to convict defendants of victimless “crimes”. Nullify unjust laws that harm people who have harmed nobody by refusing to enforce them. Refuse to be complicit in their unjust application to anybody, and especially in their disproportionate application to young black men and other minority defendants.

    I encourage everyone to view this short video of law professor Paul Butler discussing jury nullification: Then check out the rest of the website of the Fully Informed Jury Association for more information on the purpose of the independent jury and the rights and responsibilities of those who serve as jurors.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      When serving on a jury, refuse to convict defendants of victimless “crimes”.

      You mean like cannabis posession? If so, I’d agree it should be legalised, but by refusing to correctly answer the question “In your opinion do the facts prove they did this thing,” you’re not changing the law, you’re usurping the power of the legislature.

      Its important not to forget that juries aren’t elected by popular mandate to judge whether laws are right or wrong, how heavily they should be punished or whether they should be enforced. They’re randomly selected in order to judge facts related to alleged crimes.

      I can see where you’re coming from, but I think taking it on yourself to decide what should and shouldn’t be illegal as a juror is going way too far. It would be much better to use the event to get an article run in the paper about the case.

      • Peter Houlihan says:

        In extreme cases like a death penalty for a political crime I’d consider refusing to serve, but not returning a false verdict. Maybe that was what you had in mind?

      • Nick, mostly says:

        Jury nullification is a subject that deserves separate treatment from this issue. To the extent that it intersects with the mission of the Good Men Project, perhaps that’s a topic one of us could write about.
        The concept of jury nullification stems from two facts. First, we don’t interrogate jurors about their reasoning for delivering a particular verdict. Whether that verdict comes back as guilty or not guilty, we don’t later put the jury on trial for delivering a verdict not to our liking. Second, in our legal system we have the concept of res judicata. Once acquitted, a defendant can not be tried again for a second crime. Putting these two together, a pattern of refusal to acquit for certain crimes can lead to a de facto nullification of the laws under which such prosecutions are brought.
        I’m of two minds regarding this issue. On the one hand, it can be a way for citizens to have a direct impact on unpopular legislation that may be intended to counter special interests. On the other, I am reminded of all-white juries that acquitted whites during high profile lynching trials in the South. If we are to accept and support this idea of jury nullification, then it may lead to both favorable and unfavorable outcomes.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    nick. Ref black culture. For starters, see McWhorter, Losing The Race, Walter Williams on practically anything. And in the category of with friends like these, see the School board.
    It appears the seattelites figure blacks have a different culture, and since having such things as future time orientation is racist, then black culture must not have it. Etc.
    The school system in which my kids grew up had a number of black families who got to middle class areas the traditional way. All was okay until we also got public housing. It’s the only bus which has a cop to prevent fighting. The public housing kids, who are all black, pressure the middle class black kids to stop acting white. There have been, as of New Year, fifteen fights at the HS, all kids from the project.
    It’s the you or my lying eyes thing again.
    To put it another way, succesful black culture looks like the standard culture. No authenticity there.

    I say again, this article would not exist were it not for the planted axiom that misbehavior is evenly distributed. It is simply, logically impossible to have an issue about punishment if you don’t have misbehavior evenly distributed.

    Yoda. Hail of bullets. There was a former Marine in Tucson, an ex Seal in Nevada. You’ve never had a pizza guy show up at your house and claim the wrong address. The cops, on the other hand…. See civil forfeiture. Case in San Diego years ago where the cops wanted the guy’s house. He was white. He’s also dead.

    As to punishment in the larger criminal justice system, see the National Crime Victims Survey. It’s about victims before any of the racist cops show up.

    By the way, my daughter says some of her HS kids can’t tell time with an analog clock. Their so-called parents didn’t bother to teach them. Got to figure out some way to blame this on whites to keep Peter Houlihan happy.

    And, Liam. I didn’t say there is evidence, empirical statistical evidence of evenly distributed misbehavior. I said that, without it, you don’t have a point. The most likely cause of the disciplinary difference is misbehavior difference. Until you prove there is no misbehavior difference, the most likely reason remains unaddressed. Assertions that there is no difference don’t cut it.

    • Nick, mostly says:

      I say again, this article would not exist were it not for the planted axiom that misbehavior is evenly distributed. It is simply, logically impossible to have an issue about punishment if you don’t have misbehavior evenly distributed.

      Richard, I’ve been told you’re quite intelligent, which is why your insistence here is puzzling. Let me present you with a hypothetical using simple math to show you what is happening and why “even distribution” is not required to show a disparity.

      Let’s say a school has one thousand children, two hundred black and eight hundred white. If misbehavior were evenly distributed, you would expect that blacks would be responsible for 20% of the misbehavior and whites responsible for 80% of the misbehavior. Similarly, we’d expect that blacks accounted for 20% of the punishment and whites for 80% of the punishment.

      This is the null hypothesis.

      Okay, let’s say that the blacks are really rowdy, and are actually responsible for 40% of the misbehavior, leaving the whites responsible for 60% of the misbehavior. The blacks are twice as rowdy as we’d expect them to be based on their share of the population, resulting in the misbehavior being unevenly distributed.

      Still with me?

      What the data shows is that if given the above scenario, blacks would be punished 80% of the time, and whites 20% of the time. That is, blacks are punished more than we would expect them to be based on the infractions they commit and whites are punished less than we would expect based on the infractions they commit.

      This is what is shown in the statistics Liam presented. The statistics show that while it is true that blacks commit more crime compared to their proportion of the population, they are punished at rates higher than whites are. As in my hypothetical you would expect blacks to be punished in proportion to the amount of crime they commit.

      I’m hoping to write something for GMP about this study and in researching the data I found out that some of the data sets are actually better than others. For example, in Texas they have some comparative data that shows the infraction (e.g. cutting class, fighting) and the punishment (e.g. in school suspension, out of school suspension, expulsion). When they compared blacks to whites based on the same infractions, they found that blacks were punished at a rate higher than whites who committed the same offenses.

      This is why we can say that there is a race disparity without having to rely on your axiom of even distribution.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Nick. The only stats that would support Liam’s argument are those mentioned in the Texas data.
        I have heard of such studies for years. However, as with most studies having to do with people, there is always room for dispute. What is “fighting”? There was a case in my kids’ HS some time after they graduated where a real butthead got his face ground into the linoleum by a wrestler. Since the wrestler didn’t “hit” the guy, the admin, trying not to smile, said there was no “fight”. Wrestler was a class hero. This is an extreme case. Both happened to be white, but if the butthead had been black, the calls for the wrestler’s expulsion or other punishment–don’t recall what the protocol was–would be stronger. Or if the wrestler had been black and the butthead white, several narratives would have kicked in, depending on the punishment. Statistically, however, this was not a “fight”.
        Some years ago, apologists for behavior in the Detroit schools suggested not disciplining black kids for telling the teacher “fuck you” and walking out of the room. The idea was that this is so common among black kids that they don’t know any better and shouldn’t be punished as if they did. Now, it wasn’t my idea to claim this was so common they didn’t know any better. It was their apologists who claimed that. The implication was that there had been an unacceptable level of kids telling teachers “fuck you” and walking out of the room. I have no idea if the system formally or informally eased up on this or similar issues. The point is that, formally or informally, we can expect pressure to exist to view infractions through a racial lens.

        So you have done what Liam did not care to do: Acknowledge higher rates of misbehavior among blacks and search out data purporting to demonstrate, at least at a superficial level, differential punishment for similar infractions.

        We can go from here.

        At the Joanne Jacobs ed blog, somebody asked the question of why we are supposed to leave the kids who behave and want to learn at the mercy of the buttheads.

        We should go there next.

        Also, I didn’t have an axiom of even distribution. I was trying to say that Liam had planted it without mentioning it–because that means it might have had to be discussed and that would never do–and that he had to prove it to demonstrate there was a problem. It wasn’t my axiom. It was Liam’s.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      “By the way, my daughter says some of her HS kids can’t tell time with an analog clock. Their so-called parents didn’t bother to teach them.”

      Don’t know about you, but I learned to read a clock in primary school maths rather than from my parents. Maybe their parents assumed they were learning these things in school? Its still pretty bad either way.

  5. It’s a one-two combo. You have far too many black students who simply are not being parented for a number of reasons (only one parent in the household, absent or exhausted due to working an increasing number of hours, neglect/abuse, etc.). The children are also subject to much harsher punishments because they are black. It’s the perfect dry run for the prison system. When I was teaching in the public school, we used to have a couple of “feeder schools” i.e. middle schools where many of our students came from. I imagine many jails could identify their own “feeder schools” as well. In any case, it’s all connected and we’re all responsible. The parents are sabotaging their kids by not preparing them to conduct themselves appropriately at school, but that has a lot to do with the fact that the parents are operating in a place where they are valued less and deal with a great number of obstacles. I live in a country where I can be labeled suspicious because of the way I look or walk. I can be followed by a security guard even after the police tell him not to, subsequently murdered for the crime of walking to my home with Skittles and an Arizona Ice tea, and then have the security guard not go to jail by simply claiming self defense. I live in a country where people will find all kinds of way to justify the murder of black men. They’ll chalk it up to the inherently dangerous work of police, but they can’t think of a single case of an unarmed, innocent white person dying in a hail of gunfire. They’ll chalk it up to the “inherent criminality” of black men, but when I see the police engaging white criminals (alleged), they seem to be able to exercise discretion and communicate with words or proportional response. Their dealing with white “criminals” doesn’t seem to make them deal more harshly with all white people. We’re all responsible.

    • “It’s a one-two combo. You have far too many black students who simply are not being parented for a number of reasons (only one parent in the household, absent or exhausted due to working an increasing number of hours, neglect/abuse, etc.). The children are also subject to much harsher punishments because they are black.”

      THIS. It’s an issue of social inequalities and significantly more complex than merely, “Well, maybe they just misbehave more.” I mean, people get their doctorates on researching these things.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    Let me put it another way: The article would not have been written without the planted axiom that misbehavior is evenly distributed. Without that presumption, there is no evidence of a problem. My question is whether there is any evidence that the planted axiom, and its uncritical acceptance, is actually true.

    • Nick, mostly says:

      Once again you’ve ignored any questions asked of you, in preference of making unfounded assertions that are contrary to the evidence we do have. You give the appearance of having a bias against believing it could possibly be true, and rather than the stats to be provisionally true and looking to see if they confirm or refute other evidence we have, you reject them outright and require extraordinary evidence for what isn’t an extraordinary claim.

      While the school discipline statistics are harder to piece together (we can’t control for which offenses are referred for disciplinary action), the sentencing statistics speak for themselves. It doesn’t require axiomatic acceptance that misbehavior is evenly distributed. It’s not a question of blacks committing more crimes or more violent crimes – when you control for those blacks are sentenced more and more harshly than whites for the exact same crimes. To suggest that there is some other explanation in education, one where blacks are simply committing offenses more frequently than whites, when we see the same statistical disparities around punishment, is shameful.

      Let me put it another way: When we already know that this happens in the criminal justice system, why would we expect otherwise in education discipline?

    • Richard,

      I believe Nick’s last question is the operative one: “When we already know that this happens in the criminal justice system, why would we expect otherwise in education discipline?”

      The criminal justice statistics I cited are, with the exception of #1, both crime and punishment statistics, and, even with the first statistic, I find it difficult to believe that drug use by white youth declined 34% between 1986 and 1991 to explain the 34% decrease in drug-arrests of white youth during the same period.

      One thing you are correct about is the current lack of comparable data in our school discipline systems. Here, the data conflates – we have the punishment data, i.e. the data that tells us how often students are suspended or expelled, but the only crime data we have, i.e. the data that would tell us who is misbehaving in or disrupting classrooms, is likewise the punishment data. Given that, we need to ask ourselves the following: Is the discrepancy in punishment due to a concomitant discrepancy in behavior?

      I am sympathetic to the challenges your relatives have faced in the classroom. I have faced them myself. But the questions we ask must be answered empirically and not on the basis of anecdote. And, right now, the data we have tell us two things: 1) Black students are punished in schools at significantly higher rates than white students; and 2) This discrepancy is consistent with our criminal justice system, where there does not appear to be a consistent discrepancy in the rate of crime committed.


    • Peter Houlihan says:

      As above, unevenly distributed misbehaviour is evidence of a problem in and of itself.

      • Peter,

        I would agree with you. Even if Richard were right, which, to be blunt, I don’t believe he is, the discrepancy in behavior would represent an issue of inequality in and of itself. I am merely attempting to debate Richard on his terms.

        Thank you for your interest in the article, though. I do appreciate it. As, I must add, I appreciate Richard’s. Even though we may disagree with him, that he is willing to engage is a good thing.


        • Peter Houlihan says:

          Sorry, true, I wasn’t arguing that misbehaviour definitely is unevenly distributed. Just that if it is then the observation and article are still relevant.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Nick. I am sixty-seven years old, which ought to answer all your questions. However, pretty much all my female relatives are teachers. Pretty much all of them know other teachers. My kids played ball in HS which took us to various schools, some middle-class, some rural white, some urban.
    Example. My dtr, in her frosh year in college, was on the dorm council. The campus Black Caucus asked if they could have a dance in the dorm facilities. The council knew that the last BC dance had resulted in property damage, injuries, fighting, and cops coming at another dorm. But in order to not appear racist, they approved the request. There was property damage, inuries, fighting, and cops showing up.
    OTOH, my son was the only white kid playinb BB in the BC intramural league. Go figure.
    Do you have any evidence whites play the knockout game?

    Would you like to talk to my daughter–this is speaking hypothetically, of course–about the situation in her high school where she is a teacher? You could tell her to believe you instead of her lying eyes. She could compare her experience now to her experience student teaching in two suburban systems and in one poor, rural white system.

    Do you think the FBI crime survey and the National Crime Victims Survey are BSing us, or that the behavior evidenced therein is not evident in HS?

    Used to be a black school in the league our HS in. At away games, cheerleaders would go on and off the field in a hollow square. Not the Brigade of Guards parade hollow square, but the tactical hollow square of football players. My son had, as a matter of luck, three games there between JV and varsity, BB and FB, which were parents night. Our side of the stands was literally–and I don’t mean it to mean figuratively–groaning at the results. Three of the football team had both parents. None of the basketball team….
    Is there a white equivalent to freaknik? Now that it’s no longer in Atlanta, someting like the same is in Miami. Ought to look it up.

    Liam recounts “crime and punishment discrepancies”. Actually, he recounts “punishment discrepancies”. He says nothing about the crime piece of it except to imply it’s evenly distributed. He doesn’t tell us why black school administrations continue the discrepancies. He doesn’t tell us why racist school systems punish asians less than whites.
    As I say, if misbehavior is evenly distributed, we have a punishment problem. As an organized question, we need to answer first the question of distribution of misbehavior before we know if we even have a problem.
    Okay. Black culture isn’t monolithic. But we are told over and over that black culture is different, and we must honor it. So something is happening.
    The reason I ask for empirical evidence that misbehavior is evenly distributed is that without such evidence, there is no evidence of a problem.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Ok… so theres a high rate of fatherlesness (is this anything to do with black culture so much as lower income communities?). Could this not lead to black kids getting punished more harshly at school?

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Might be the sign of a disfunctional subculture. Thing is, it’s not kosher to say so. We’re supposed to honor black culture. Talk about the knockout game or the misogyny, or the flash mobs assaulting whites or robbing convenience stores and you’ll get called out for dishonoring MLK, Jr..
    It is also to the profit of various leaders to continue the theme of black repression. The hoax of an epidemic of burnings of black churches about fifteen years ago was a MAJOR fundraising tool for the “National Council of Churches (nobody goes to)” By coincidence, I had been talking to the guy in charge of fundraising about six months before hand. He was leaving due to discouragement. Bet he wishes he’d held on until the burning-church thing got started.

    • Nick, mostly says:

      You speak of “the knockout game” as if it were a thing blacks do. You speak of black culture as if it were a monolithic thing. You make claims and suppositions that appear to be projections and hypotheticals. You demand empirical evidence of others while writing in generalizations and anecdotes yourself.

      Do you have experience in education that might provide evidence to the contrary? Do you have good reason to believe that the statistical discrepancy is explained solely by behavior rather than other factors, given what we know about the crime and punishment discrepancies blacks face as recounted by Liam?

      If not, I must say it’s quite a curious position to take.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Even if it is due to a dysfunctional subculture I don’t think america can wash its hands of it. Conditions in poor working class areas are perpetuated by social policy. I don’t agree that the cultural constructs of poor immegrants coming from functional societies can be extrapolated to prove that the cultural constructs of a social underclass can be said to be wholly to blame for their condition.

      If Chinese parents push their kids to do well in school it has at least something to do with the fact that they or their ancestors came from a country and culture where they had pride and an opportunity to rise in society. Afro american parents come from a social background where they had the opposite.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    This article caught quite a bit of attention on an educators’ blog–“Joanne Jacobs”–and there was an important question:
    What about the kids who don’t act up? Are we supposed to increase their risk, and the disruption to their education, by keeping the assaultive kids and the disruptive kids in school?
    The difference in punishment would be obviously a matter of the disciplinary process if we presume the acting out is equally distributed between whites, asians, hispanics, and blacks. We need something empirical to prove this before we look at the disciplinary system. And, said a commenter on the Jacobs blog, why do whites get disciplined more than asians if it’s a matter of white racism?
    Keep in mind further, that the admin of many of the mostly-black schools is black and has been for many years.
    Also, come to think of it, there is a planted axiom that, had the student who shoved my teacher-daughter been white, she wouldn’t have been expelled. And if the kid who winged a quarter off the head of the substitute the following hour had been white, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much fuss.
    We need something empirical.

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      For me it doesn’t really matter why this is so, no matter what the answer is its shocking. If black students are acting up three times more than white students then thats still evidence of some huge inequality in society.

      • L. J. Smith says:

        The research here is nothing new and not anything that black youth and adults have experienced since Jim Crow. Now there is evidence. The point here, though is that black students are not acting up more, but that they are more likely to be punished and punished more harshly.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      I believe Liam is offering empirical evidence, Aubrey. It’s about arrests and convictions, but as far as discipline in school goes, that data could easily be extrapolated to make basic assumptions.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        It would only be an issue if we had empirical data showing that misbehavior is evenly distributed. In that case, we’d have a problem with the disciplinary process.
        We we see is empirical data showing blacks are more likely to be disciplined. If they were more likely to be misbehaving, this would be entirely justified.
        If they misbehaved at the rate of, say, asians, but were disciplined more harshly, that would be evidence of a problem.
        But we see no evidence either way in this case whether the problem of misbehavior is evenly distributed. Without that, we have nothing.

        • Peter Houlihan says:

          Even is misbehaviour is unevenly distributed doesn’t this still say something about the society they’re growing up in?


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