New data are showing that suspension and expulsion rates are much higher for children of color than white children in K-12 public schools. The numbers are no surprise to Assistant Professor April Mustian, who suggests teachers can be walking into the classroom with unintentional biases that contribute to these statistics.
The study appearing in the New York Times suggests expulsion rates for children of color are geographically disproportionate, with a huge gap in the southern states. There are massive amounts of data that reveal discipline issues in schools have been disproportionate and pervasive across the country.
For decades, the data speak to the idea that teachers are walking into the classroom, not necessarily racist, but carrying biases and stereotypes that underscore their discipline choices. They don’t recognize how their choices impact and influence other students.
You can see it as a cultural mismatch. If a white teacher sees a black student doing something that doesn’t fit within the teacher’s cultural ideas, he or she might see it as something punishable. If a white student is doing something similar, it might make sense culturally to a white teacher. The growing problem is that a majority of our teachers are from white, middle class backgrounds, and more and more of our K-12 population is comprised of students of color. So we are more likely to see that mismatch.
Recently, the governor signed Senate Bill 100 into law, which will be a huge overhaul of discipline in schools, and eliminate automatic—or zero-tolerance— expulsions. That is a good first step. It will make schools look closely at the incidents that might lead to expulsion.
Unfortunately, the second part of that overhaul needs to be the fiscal support, which is lacking. Schools need funds for professional development, resources, and personnel needed to implement new and more effective interventions in lieu of zero-tolerance policies.
Looking forward, I hope more districts consider restorative justice practices. Originating in juvenile and criminal justice, it is a notion that instead of looking at children’s discipline as merely a crime-and-punishment scenario, it can be viewed as an opportunity for reconciliation, growth, and building healthy relationships. Schools now are using ideas like peer juries and peace circles that allow all students impacted to have a voice, and an opportunity to heal.
It is difficult to be in a school and digest that your discipline policy might be negatively impacting students of color. Too often, it gets swept under the rug because it is difficult to discuss. Like issues of race, we need to talk about changing discipline, even if that makes us uncomfortable.
April Mustian is an assistant professor of special education at Illinois State University. She can be reached at MediaRelations@IllinoisState.edu.