Harsh punishments can damage Black students’ academic success at school

Recent research conducted by University of Pittsburgh scholars Juan Del Toro and Ming-Te Wang show that Black students are often subject to harsher discipline at school than White students, and those punishments can damage students’ perceptions of their school and negatively impact their academic success years later.

The authors analyzed three years of school records, including disciplinary data and grade point averages, for 2,381 sixth-, eighth- and tenth-grade students from 12 schools in an urban Mid-Atlantic school district in the United States.

Of the students, 818 were Black and 1,563 were White. The researchers also surveyed the students each year about their perceptions of their school’s climate — such as whether they felt they belonged at the school and whether they felt that school rules were consistent and clear.

Twenty-six percent of the Black students received at least one suspension for a minor infraction over the course of the three years, compared with just 2% of White students. Minor infractions included things such as dress code violations, inappropriate language or using a cell phone in class.

Among Black students, those who were suspended for a minor infraction during the first year of the study had significantly lower grades than students who weren’t suspended one and two years later.

They also found that the relationship between suspensions and grades was mediated by the students’ perceptions of their school climate: teens who received suspensions for minor infractions were more likely to report an unfavorable school climate one year later, which in turn predicted lower grades one year after that.

“Unfortunately, we were not surprised by the findings, considering what we know about the role of racial bias . . . Regardless of the behavior that African American youth engage in, that behavior is viewed by educators as more worthy of harsh school discipline like a suspension,” said Wang, a professor of Education and Psychology and research scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC).

The researchers also looked at whether students’ grades and their perceptions of school climate during the first year of the study predicted whether they would receive any suspensions by year three and found no relationship in that direction.

This suggests that it was indeed racial bias, and not any individual traits of the student — such as poor self-control — that led to both increased suspensions and poor grades, according to Wang.

The researchers were not able to similarly explore the link between minor infraction suspensions and grades among White students because too few White students received minor infraction suspensions to run an analysis that would reach statistical significance.

The findings illustrate the pervasive negative effects that racial biases in school discipline may have on Black students, according to study co-author Del Toro, a postdoctoral research fellow at LRDC.

“When students are suspended for harmless minor infractions, they may understandably begin to view school adults and the rules they enforce as controlling and unfair,” said Del Toro. “That can damage adolescents’ relationships with educators and lower their sense of belonging in school.”

The results suggest that schools may need to reconsider policies that allow educators to choose severe punishments such as suspension instead when students commit minor infractions.

“Based on our study, it may be important to limit school adults’ opportunities for choosing severe discipline options for minor infractions, because of what we know about the role of racial biases in school discipline,” Del Toro said.

In future studies, the researchers plan to explore where in the school discipline pipeline these racial biases are most likely to play out — for example, whether teachers make harsher discipline suggestions for Black students, or whether school administrators are likely to mete out harsher-then-suggested punishments for Black students.

They are also studying whether teachers and schools that promote culturally responsive education, diversity, and cultural competence have fewer racial disparities in school discipline.

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