The Disproportionate Discipline of African American Learners: Reducing School Suspensions and Expulsions

By Townsend, Brenda L. | Exceptional Children, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Disproportionate Discipline of African American Learners: Reducing School Suspensions and Expulsions


Townsend, Brenda L., Exceptional Children


In recent years, school disciplinary practices have come under increasing scrutiny (Riak, 1985; Rose, 1988). Exclusionary discipline measures, in particular, have given rise to concern and litigation on behalf of students with disabilities (Center & McKittrick, 1987; Yell, 1990) and their peers without disabilities (McFadden, Marsh, Price, & Hwang, 1992). Further, the discipline of both dominant culture and ethnic minority culture children and youth has long been rife with ethical and practical concerns. While questionable discipline practices that exclude students from school settings are used with students across ethnic groups, they are especially problematic for African American students who continue to be disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment, suspension, and expulsion.

SCHOOL DISCIPLINE AND AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDENTS

The differential administration of exclusionary and punitive discipline with African American children and youth has been consistently documented. The Office for Civil Rights (1993) reported the findings of a national survey showing that while African American males composed 8.23% of the total student population, they received corporal punishment and were suspended at rates over three times their percentage in the population. In a study of the educational status of 25,000 eighth graders from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Davis and Jordan (1994) found that suspensions were imposed upon African American males much more than any other group. Garibaldi (1992) reported that while African American males composed 43% of the school age population in a New Orleans district, they received 65% of the school district's suspensions and 80% of the expulsions. In another study of urban school districts, African American children received more office referrals and subsequently more suspensions than any other ethnic group (Skiba, Peterson, & Williams, 1997).

Some identifiable student attributes increase the likelihood that students will receive exclusionary discipline. According to Wu, Pink, Crain, and Moles (1982) students' low socioeconomic status, underachievement, low achievement, and residence in urban areas place students at high risk for school suspension. Furthermore, the intersection among African American ethnicity, male gender, and low family income increases students' risk for exclusionary discipline practices.

Effects of Exclusionary Discipline on African American Students

The use of suspension and expulsion with African American students has wide-ranging consequences. Among the most obvious is the denial of access to learning opportunities that occurs when students are not in school. Students who receive out-of-school suspensions or expulsions typically are not provided opportunities to continue their school work. Given histories of underachievement and school failure, lost opportunities for schooling are of even greater import. A widening achievement gap exists between African American students and their white peers (Garibaldi, 1992; Simmons & Grady, 1990). In view of these concerns, African American children and youth can ill afford school practices that restrict or deny their access to educational opportunities.

Disciplinary measures that exclude African American students may create a "domino effect" that further widens that achievement gap. For example, the belief that students who are excluded from school lag behind their peers academically may cause school personnel to relegate frequently suspended students to lower-ability groups. Yet students in lower tracks tend to receive lower quality resources and instruction (Oakes, 1994). Thus, while other students have opportunities to participate in general education and accelerated learning programming, students with histories of school exclusion may be subjected to lower-track or remedial programming. If that programming is not effective, those students may continue to receive poor academic grades and be retained more frequently than other students. …

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