In Dothan, Alabama, school officials are meeting to make changes to the Dothan City Schools suspension policies because of disparities between the rates of suspensions between black and white students. Across the American South, these suspension disparities are among the greatest. The terms for how students are punished are largely subjective, and this punishment increasingly falls harder on minority students compared to their white counterparts. An August 2015 report published by the University of Pennsylvania highlighted some of the disparities in punishment and brought to light some of the disproportionate impact these harsh discipline policies have on black students in the Southern states in particular.
The report found that across the country in one academic year there were 1.2 million black students suspended from K-12 schools. More than half of these suspensions occurred in Southern states (55 percent). Southern school districts also accounted for half of the expulsions of black students in the nation. Overall black students were punished at disproportionately high levels across Southern school districts. In 84 school districts black students accounted for 100 percent of all suspensions, and in 181 districts black students accounted for 100 percent of expulsions. Those numbers only represent the districts where all of the harsh discipline was entirely directed at black students — in hundreds of other districts punishment was directed towards black students 50 or 75 percent of the time.
The disparity exists in both genders. Across the Southern school districts boys accounted for 65 percent of black students that were suspended. black girls comprised 56 percent of suspensions and 45 percent of expulsions for girls in Southern states, and in 10 of the Southern states were the most suspended demographic. While the disparity exists nationally, it is harshest in the South. For example, the UPenn report found that black boys were 35 percent of the national suspended male student population, while in the South they comprised 47 percent of suspensions.
The biggest problem with this disparity is the large number of these suspended and expelled students that are referred to the criminal justice system as a means of school discipline. Minority students not only have a greater chance of being punished by suspension of expulsion, but they also have a greater chance of being referred to the juvenile justice system. Once suspended or expelled they have a higher chance of not finishing their education and falling into delinquency. The disparity is socioeconomic as well as racial, as over-disciplining both poor and minority populations hurts their chances of success.
These disparities are a part of the school to prison pipeline and they highlight some of the reason why the pipeline exists, and affects minority populations the most. Disparities across the system is one of the causes of the larger overcriminalization problem in the United States. When someone experiences disparities and problems in their education or family there are often more significant problems later in their lives. The discrimination and policy problems in the schools in the South are leading to bigger problems that are changing the lives of minority youths forever. Without changes to how discipline works in schools, and without families, parents, and especially fathers being the first disciplinarians in a child’s life, we will always feed the school to prison pipeline. The sad reality in the South, and much of the U.S. for that matter, is that the minority and poor youths in school are feeling the burden of this greater societal problem.
One the most important questions in this discussion is this: what is the relationship between family structure and child behavior at school? If there is data that points to family strength as the basis for behavior at school, and that data does exist, the solutions to the school suspension problem may be more simple than we may imagine. A related issue, then, is what do we do when families breakdown?