Racial Bias and DC's School-to-Prison Pipeline

The "Every Student, Every Day" Coalition seeks to raise awareness about school engagement and school pushout in Washington, DC. This is the first in a series of blog posts that describes different aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline. Each post is written by a member of the Coalition, so the series showcases the different perspectives that our members bring to this issue. To learn more about the Coalition's mission and see the current members of the ESED Coalition's Steering Committee, visit http://www.dcly.org/every_student_every_day_coalition. 

By Kelly Shaw

Darius, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy living in Oakland, California knows that authority figures often view him as a suspect. Darius was suspended from his high school for talking out of turn in class, and that suspension was the start of a downward spiral:

After I got suspended, I came back to school and told my teacher that I wanted “do to good or else…” She thought I was threatening her, but what I meant was that I wanted to change, or else I would be very upset with myself. She sent me out of school again. I got angry, I ran into this dude on the street that I did not like… So I fought him. After that fight, I went to juvenile… I went to jail the next day. And that’s how my juvenile-hall life started, and just kept going. It started with a suspension, and then I ended up getting out of juvenile hall, and then me just looking like a suspicious person, and then somebody booked me again just for being out there.[1]

When Darius committed the act that resulted in his arrest, he should have been in school. Instead, he was pushed out of the classroom and on the street, unsupervised. Darius’s story shows how even a single suspension can derail a student’s education and lead to involvement with the juvenile justice system: the reality of a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

For all students, school should offer a safe and supportive learning environment. Many assume that schools function as the “great equalizer” of opportunity, a place where all children have equal opportunity to succeed regardless of race or socio-economic status. However, at this gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline, students are viewed both as potential victims and potential perpetrators of violence. As many schools rely on law enforcement officers and punitive school discipline policies for safety, schools often push out their most disadvantaged students.[2] The harmful disproportionate application of these disciplinary policies stunts the academic growth of those who feel their effects most harshly, including African-American students.[3]

Eleven states, including Washington D.C., reported higher gaps than the rest of the nation between the suspension rates of African-American students and white students.[4] Nationally, black students were suspended and expelled three times as often as white students in the 2012-2013 school year.  However, African-American students in D.C. schools (both D.C. Public Schools and charter schools) were almost six times more likely to be disciplined as white students.[5]

Likelihood of Suspension and Expulsion by Race (SY 2012–2013)

What gives this disturbing trend its perseverance? Until recently, the national dialogue on school discipline has focused on the behavior and discipline of individual students, and less attention in policy and practice has focused on the climates of schools.[6] While there are many significant contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline, research shows that implicit racial bias can influence subjective school discipline decisions.[7] Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the school-to-prison pipeline is once again teaching children of color that they are indeed separate and certainly not equal.[8]

Disproportionality in discipline cannot be fully explained by higher rates of student misbehavior among African Americans or by challenges associated with poverty.[9] Rather, students of color are removed from schools for similar or lesser offenses compared to their white peers.[10] A racial disparity is seen less often for clearly defined infractions that require punishment, such as violence, drugs or weapon charges. A disparity is clearer for behaviors that allow teachers to make “judgment calls,” such as disrespect, dress code violations, or “talking back.”[11] This accelerates the exclusion of black students from the mainstream school system and their introduction to the juvenile justice system, which is why this racial divide often parallels student involvement with the courts. Nationally, data show that black youth are arrested at over twice the rate of white youth.[12]

Darius believes that he was placed on the schoolhouse to jailhouse track for “looking like a suspicious person,” and he is not alone. Research shows that teachers and administrators are not immune from the unconscious bias that influences all decisions, and student behavior is often seen through a distorted racial lens.[13] The widespread racial stereotype that black males are criminals may impact the manner in which teachers view African-American students, increasing the likelihood that they will be viewed as troublemakers or violent.[14]  

            When a child is treated as if he or she has a natural propensity to be dangerous, this may affect his or her self-perception.In fact, students often internalize this stigma, causing them to lose hope and making it more likely that they will wind up behind bars.[15] For many students of color, school represents another space where they are criminalized for their style and culture, and too many recall school as the first place they encountered police.[16]

To change this trend, advocates across the country have been successfully challenging the policies and practices that contribute to school removal. Restorative justice practices appear to be the most promising intervention strategy for reducing school-wide reliance on suspension and expulsion and for reducing racial disparities.[17] Research confirms that these support programs foster emotional growth and personal accountability for students, in addition to reducing behaviors that might compromise school safety or serve as grounds for suspension.[18]

The Every Student Every Day (ESED) Coalition seeks to break the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Washington, D.C. by pursuing policies that prioritize student engagement and limit unnecessary school removal. During the 2011-12 school year, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB) issued a total of 18,950 suspensions.[19] The coalition supports the implementation of alternative practices of improved classroom management programs, such as school-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and restorative justice initiatives, to diminish this statistic.[20] The Coalition also supports efforts to increase transparency and accountability in the application of school discipline through a consistent method of data collection and reporting. This reporting should be based on race, as well as including the number of suspensions and their reasons, which will allow schools to become more aware of any racial disparities building in the data.

Similar efforts have seen success nationwide.  For example, it was recently reported that the expulsion rate for D.C. public charter schools was about half of what it was two years before, and that the D.C. Public Charter School Board has made it a priority to reduce expulsions and suspensions in its schools.[21] Philadelphia approved of a new code of student conduct that replaced their broad discipline categories with five levels of progressive interventions and consequences that are fit for specific acts of misconduct.[22] The Los Angeles Unified School District recently passed the School Climate Bill of Rights, banning suspensions for “willful defiance,” a category that contributes to racial disparities in school discipline.[23] The bill also guaranteed the implementation of restorative justice programs and limits the role of police officers in school discipline.[24]

However, there is still work to be done to ensure that all youth are given equal access to high-quality education. The ESED Coalition hopes that others will join these ongoing efforts to improve school climate and promote student success by eliminating the unnecessary exclusion of our students from school. By raising awareness and becoming involved, there will be fewer stories of hopelessness like Darius’s, and more stories of success and encouragement.


[1] Victor M. Rios, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, New Perspectives in Crime, Deviance, and Law (NYU Press, 2011).

[2] Dennis Parker, “Segregation 2.0: America’s School-to-Prison Pipeline,” MSNBC, May 17, 2014, http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/brown-v-board-students-criminalized.

[3] Victor M. Rios, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.

[4] Reducing Out-of-School Suspensions and Expulsions in District of Columbia Public and Public Charter Schools (Office of the State Superintendent of Education, June 2014), http://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/OSSE_REPORT_DISCIPLINARY_G_PAGES.pdf.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Prudence Carter, Michelle Fine, and Stephen Russell, Discipline Disparities Series: Overview (The Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative, March 2014), http://www.indiana.edu/~atlantic/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Disparity_Overview_040414.pdf.

[7] Sean Nicholson-Crotty, Zachary Birchmeier, and David Valentine, “Exploring the Impact of School Discipline on Racial Disproportion in the Juvenile Justice System,” Social Science Quarterly 90, no. 4 (n.d.): 1003–18.

[8] Dennis Parker, “Segregation 2.0: America’s School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

[9] Prudence Carter, Michelle Fine, and Stephen Russell, Discipline Disparities Series: Overview.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] C. Puzzanchera and S. Hockenberry, National Disproportionate Minority Contact Databook (Developed by the National Center for Juvenile Justice for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2013), http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/dmcdb/asp/display.asp?year=2011&offense=1&displaytype=rates.

[13] Sean Nicholson-Crotty, Zachary Birchmeier, and David Valentine, “Exploring the Impact of School Discipline on Racial Disproportion in the Juvenile Justice System.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Victor M. Rios, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys.

[17] Prudence Carter, Michelle Fine, and Stephen Russell, Discipline Disparities Series: Overview.

[18] Annette Fuentes, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (New York, NY: Verso Books, n.d.).

[19] Alex Peerman and Eduardo Ferrer, District Discipline: The Overuse of Suspension and Expulsion in the District of Columbia (DC Lawyers for Youth, June 20, 2013), 3, http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/dcly/pages/64/attachments/original/1371689930/District_Discipline_Report.pdf?1371689930.

[20] Policy Platform: Recommendations for Improving School Engagement (The Every Student Every Day Coalition, May 2013), http://www.dcly.org/esed_policy_platform.

[21] Michael Alison Chandler, “Suspensions and Expulsions Down in D.C. Charter Schools,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/suspensions-and-expulsions-down-in-dc-charter-schools/2014/09/04/0d47e472-346c-11e4-9e92-0899b306bbea_story.html.

[22] “Success Stories,” accessed October 27, 2014, http://safequalityschools.org/pages/success-stories.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.


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