Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Race Is Not Neutral: A National Investigation of African American and Latino Disproportionality in School Discipline

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Race Is Not Neutral: A National Investigation of African American and Latino Disproportionality in School Discipline

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 set the nation on a path toward equalizing educational opportunity for all children. The right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, or national origin was explicitly guaranteed by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Browne, Losen, & Wald, 2002). Those protections were expanded to students with disabilities in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 and to educational outcomes for all children in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind, 2008). Yet continuing racial and ethnic disparities in education ranging from the achievement gap (Ladson-Billings, 2006) to disproportionality in special education (Donovan & Cross, 2002) to dropout and graduation rates (Wald & Losen, 2007) have led some to question the extent to which the promises of Brown have been fulfilled (Blanchett, Mumford, & Beachum, 2005). In particular, over 30 years of research has documented racial and socioeconomic disparities in the use of out-of-school suspension and expulsion. The purpose of this article is to describe a national investigation exploring the extent of, and patterns in, racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline at the elementary and middle school level.

Consistently Demonstrated Disproportionality

For over 25 years, in national-, state-, district-, and building-level data, students of color have been found to be suspended at rates two to three times that of other students, and similarly overrepresented in office referrals, corporal punishment, and school expulsion (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002). Documentation of disciplinary overrepresentation for African American students has been highly consistent (see e.g., Gregory, 1997; McCarthy & Hoge, 1987; McFadden, Marsh, Price, & Hwang, 1992; Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003; Skiba et al., 2002; Wu, Pink, Crain, & Moles, 1982). According to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, disciplinary disproportionality for African American students appears to have increased from the 1970s, when African Americans appeared to be at approximately twice the risk of out of school suspension to 2002, when African American students risk for suspension was almost three times as great as White students (Wald & Losen, 2003). Although disciplinary overrepresentation of Latino students has been reported in some studies (Raffaele Mendez & Knoff, 2003), the finding is not universal across locations or studies (see e.g., Gordon, Della Piana, & Keleher, 2000).

Possible Causative Mechanisms

A number of possible hypotheses have been proposed as mechanisms to account for rates of disciplinary disparity by race/ethnicity, including poverty, differential rates of inappropriate or disruptive behavior in school settings, and cultural mismatch or racial stereotyping. The possible mechanisms are discussed in the following.


Race and socioeconomic status (SES) are unfortunately highly connected in American society (McLoyd, 1998), raising the possibility that any finding of racial disparities in school discipline can be accounted for by disproportionality associated with SES. Low SES has been consistently found to be a risk factor for school suspension (Brantlinger, 1991; Wu et al., 1982). Yet when the relationship of SES to disproportionality in discipline has been explored directly, race continues to make a significant contribution to disproportionate disciplinary outcomes independent of SES (Skiba et al., 2002; Wallace, Goodkind, Wallace, & Bachman, 2008; Wu et al., 1982).

Higher Rates of Disruption Among Students of Color

A related hypothesis might be that students of color, perhaps because they have been subjected to a variety of stressors associated with poverty (see e.g., Donovan & Cross, 2002), may learn and exhibit behavioral styles so discrepant from mainstream expectations in school settings as to put them at risk for increased disciplinary contact. …

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