New School Study Shows Black Kids Get Cops, White Kids Get Docs

A new study says black students are more likely to get criminalized discipline, while white students receive medical intervention.

07.30.15 5:00 AM ET

In the midst of rising racial tension nationwide, new data on school discipline is bolstering the argument that America’s race problem begins in school.

The study, published in the Sociology of Education, found underprivileged schools with higher levels of black students more likely to use “criminalized” discipline than “medicalized.” Data from 60,000 schools in 6,000 schools districts was gathered for the study, making it one of the largest on this topic to date.

David Ramey—assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State and the author of the study—has spent years researching how sociological factors affect schools’ modes of punishment. Even when the level of misbehavior is the same, he says, the treatment is not. “White kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem,” he says. “Black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.”

Ramey is clear about the distinction between the two disciplinary styles. Criminalized discipline revolves around penalizing the student, using concrete things like suspension, expulsion, or referral to law enforcement. Medicalized is distinctly more benign, searching for solutions through medical attention or psychological intervention.

The deeper implications of Ramey’s results are troubling. Misbehavior from black students is seen as a crime that warrants punishment; misbehavior from whites is a malady that needs medicine.

The American Civil Liberties Union refers to this issue as the “school-to-prison-pipeline” (STTP): “a nationwide system of local, state, and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system.” Dwindling resources, pressure to bring in high test scores, and increased caution from school shootings are all cited as contributing factors.

Statistics on their information page echo the results of Ramey’s study. Black students with learning disabilities are three times more likely to be suspended than white students with learning disabilities, and four times more likely to end up in correctional facilities. In 2000, black students represented only 17 percent of national public school enrollment but accounted for 34 percent of suspensions.

SuspensionStories.com, a website dedicated to documenting specific cases, has even bleaker data. According to their numbers, 40 percent of students expelled from U.S. school each year are black and 70 percent of students involved in “in-school arrests” are black or Latino. African-American students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students.

Beyond the emotional trauma, studies have shown that the criminalized discipline not only fails to fix the problem—it creates more. According to the Advancement Project, students who are suspended are more likely to “fall behind in school, be retained a grade, drop out of high school, commit a crime, and become incarcerated as an adult.”

As evidenced by the fact that 80 percent of prison inmates are without a high school education, school plays a major role in a person’s future.

Ramey says an increase in schools using criminalized discipline may be a product of our school shooting-prone society. “There’s been a real push toward school safety and there’s been a real push for schools to show they are being accountable,” he says. “But, any zero-tolerance policy or mandatory top-down solutions might be undermining what would be otherwise good efforts at discipline, and not establishing an environment based around all the options available.”

As the problem increases, more organizations are stepping forward.

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This May, the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice as well as the Department of Education on behalf of “African American students disproportionately subjected to arrests and seizures in Jefferson Parish Public Schools.” This Louisiana school system is notorious for criminalizing students; it has the most school-based arrests and law enforcement referrals in the entire state.

The letter notes that African-American students made up 80 percent of the arrests at JPPS in the 2013-14 school year, despite making up only 41.5 percent of the student population. Examples of petty offenses that students were arrested for range from profanity and yelling at a school administrator, to the case of one 17-year-old boy who was arrested for throwing a Skittle at a classmate.

Dozens of similar stories come out each year. In 2005, a 6-year-old girl in Georgia was arrested for “throwing a temper tantrum” in her kindergarten class. A high schooler in Mississippi was arrested for wearing the wrong color socks. Another in the same state was arrested for flatulence.

Still one of the worst cases is that of a 12-year-old girl in New York City who was arrested for doodling on a desk. Her lethal message? “I love my friends Abby and Faith.”