Race discrimination persists in school discipline practices

By Mary Turck

Contributing Writer


In early January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder jointly announced new federal guidelines on school discipline. Why? “Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago,” said Duncan.

Want numbers? The new guidelines have plenty:

“The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), conducted by OCR, has demonstrated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers. For example, African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Furthermore, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.”

Two charts showing race and discipline  correlations in Minneapolis Public Schools
Two charts showing race and discipline
correlations in Minneapolis Public Schools

And it’s not just a national problem. Locally, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds at the University of St. Thomas law school and Professor Nancy Heitzeg at St. Catherine’s University have done extensive work on the problem of racial disparities in school discipline and the criminal justice system. Pounds describes the school-to-prison pipeline as what happens when children are suspended, expelled, given a citation, or in some cases even arrested for incidents that happen during the school day.

Heitzeg notes that “What we see nationally and in Minnesota is that African American males are six times more likely to be suspended from school, but there’s no indication that they have more disruptive behavior than White students.”

The Star Tribune reports that St. Paul Public Schools claim to be “ahead of the nation,” but the stats still don’t look great: “Suspensions dropped by 28 percent overall in 2012-13, but black students still were nearly 10 times as likely to be suspended as Asian students, the ethnic group with the lowest percentage of students disciplined, the district’s data shows. Black students were 10.3 times more likely to be suspended during the previous year.”

Two disciplinary practices contribute heavily to racial discrimination: so-called Zero Tolerance policies and over-use of suspension and expulsion. The combination of Zero Tolerance and racially discriminatory application of discipline leads to disproportionate responses to student misbehavior.

Duncan noted, “Nationwide, as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior — like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, tardiness, profanity, and dress code violations.” Locally, several organizations, including African American Males in Education Advisory (AAMEA), Solutions Not Suspensions, and Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP) are working on transforming school disciplinary practices.

Among the leaders in the movement is Brandon Royce-Diop, who said at a May 2013 conference, “We can’t keep shying away from race-specific conversations and race-specific programming. When you have a problem, you address the problem directly and head on, and not through diagnostic applications.” Among the strategies being tried in Twin Cities schools (and elsewhere) are restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support.


The Minnesota Minority Education Project is sponsoring a Solutions in Action Youth Summit on February 12. For more information on the summit, contact Cymone Fuller at Cymone@mmep.org or call 651-645-7400.

Thanks to Mary Turck and the TC Daily Planet for sharing this story with us. 


One Comment on “Race discrimination persists in school discipline practices”

  1. here is some f the reasons why they the black youth are getting suspended at a alarming rate, lack of black people working in schools and the ones that do work for the school are not stepping up to the plate, so there are not enough African Americans support for the youth, other non blacks has less patience for black kids and quick to suspend. most black that do work for the schools doesn’t care, or are just collecting a pay check, some black are afraid to stand up, and some are look black and act white, some are spineless and being controlled by the system and doesn’t realize it. how I know this, I am a janitor who been working for Hopkins school district for thirteen years. no heart no soul lost in the system trying to keep their jobs to put food on the table. the school system is failing blacks as well as our own black people, because they have to follow the system. every once in a while you will see a African American stepping up to the plate and going out of their way to show that they care. these are just a few reasons why the kids are getting suspended.

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