Last month, The New York Times published an article highlighting a racial punishment gap in public secondary education. In 2012, black students in Arkansas were suspended from school more than five times as often as white students and received corporal punishment almost twice as often as white students. Additionally, black students were more likely to be punished for minor infractions. In the 2008-2009 academic year, black students in North Carolina public schools faced suspension rates eight times higher for cell phone use, six times higher for dress code violations, twice as high for disruptive behavior and 10 times higher for displays of affection than their white counterparts. Minor academic punishment often leads to more major punishment, which can dramatically affect students’ future academic prospects, college admissions and the trajectory of their professional lives.
Landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Lau v. Nichols clearly indicate that the U.S. education system has a troubled and racist history. What began as white backlash for integrated schools now seems to have transformed into implicit and explicit biases with serious consequences for minority students. When policies are unfairly enforced, faculty and administrative expectations significantly affect student performance.
These practices and biases have a lasting effect on minority students, and the consequences linger with them into their college careers. Though policies in primary schooling may not seem significant, they have a lasting impact on young people’s self-esteem and attitudes toward education.
To combat this harmful cycle of inequality, teachers must become aware of inherent biases and proactively tackle them. Until administrators, parents and students acknowledge that there is a systemic problem with how minority students are more likely to be perceived as dangerous or rebellious, the injustice they face will continue to go ignored. Teachers and educators must have mandated anti-racism training to understand how and why unfair punishments affect student performance and future academic and professional pursuits. Only situational training and putting this training into practice will address the racial divide in education.
Several schools have instituted policies such as restorative practices and a method known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. A report by the Arkansas Advocates for Kids and Families described restorative practices as a method using peer juries and training-based punishments rather than suspension and expulsion. Restorative practices focus on social cooperation, responsibility and unifying solutions to the issues underlying the school-to-prison pipeline. PBIS focuses on modeling positive behavior rather than relying on punishment. Such policies could have an equalizing effect in schools.
Integration of minorities in schools — particularly in states like California — has not improved and in some cases, has worsened. A 2014 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project claimed the average Latinx student attends a school with a population that is only 15.6 percent white. Additionally, black and Latinx students attend schools where, on average, more than two-thirds of students come from impoverished families, while only one-sixteenth of black students attend schools that are majority white. Separate but equal is seen as an issue of the past, not a lingering reality for students across the country, and even in California, a state that prides itself on diversity and social progress. Until minority students are no longer segregated into low-income, poorly funded schools, the culture of punishment and racial disparity in schools will continue to stall.
Until actual policies are implemented to narrow the achievement gap, by fixing the school-to-prison pipeline and changing the way minority students are viewed, universal success for children will never be achieved. Until teachers are given ample resources to provide the best educational experience for their students, they will continue to get frustrated with the system and eventually leave. There is no way to fix the broken educational system and eliminate institutionally biased practices until there is proactive leadership from the top to better fund and restructure the education system.