A new University of Pennsylvania study has illuminated the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline by examining the disciplining of Black children in public schools in the South. The study, “Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States,” found that most of the suspensions of African-American children took place in the 13 Southern states.
Black children comprise, on average 24 percent of students in 3,022 districts examined in the region, which includes the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
The report found that nationally, 1.2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year and that 55 percent of those suspensions occurred in 13 Southern states. Additionally, districts in the South were responsible for 50 percent of Black student expulsions from public schools in the United States.
The disproportionality of suspensions of Black children is revealing. For example, in 132 school districts in the South, Black students were suspended at a rate five times greater than their numbers in the population. In 84 districts, all of the students suspended were Black, while in 346 districts, Blacks accounted for at least 75 percent of public school suspensions. Further, in 743 districts, Black children comprised half or more of students suspended. The worst cases were in Mississippi, which suspended the highest proportion of Black students at 74 percent. Florida suspended the highest number of Black children at 121,468.
Meanwhile, the data on expulsions are equally disturbing. In 77 Southern public school districts, Blacks were expelled at rates five times or higher than their numbers in the student population. In 181 districts, Blacks were 100 percent of the expulsions. In addition, in 255 districts, Black children were 75 percent or students expelled, while and in 484 districts, they were 50 percent or more of the expulsions. Louisiana and Mississippi expelled the highest proportion of Black children at 72 percent each. Tennessee schools expelled the highest absolute number of Black children at 5,559.
Although 65 percent of the Black students expelled were boys, Black girls were more severely and disproportionately disciplined than girls from other racial and ethnic groups. Nationwide, Black girls account for 45 percent of girls suspended and 42 percent of girls expelled from public schools. However, in the South, Black girls were 56 percent of suspensions and 45 percent of expulsions for girls, the highest among all girls. And in 10 Southern states, Black girls were suspended the most among girls.
Throughout the U.S., Blacks were 35 percent of the boys suspended and 34 percent of boys expelled from k-12 public schools. Even worse, in the South they accounted for 47 percent of suspensions and 44 percent of expulsions—the highest of any ethnic or racial demographic. Among boys, Black boys were suspended most in 11 of 13 Southern states.
The authors of the Penn study hope schools “use this report to raise consciousness about implicit bias and other forces that cyclically reproduce racial inequities in school discipline. We hope this report is not misused to reinforce deficit, criminalized narratives about Black children.”
The report adds, ”The alarming data presented herein go beyond student misbehavior and bad parenting – they also are attributable to racist practices and policies in K-12 public schools across the South.”
The study suggests that minority overrepresentation in school punishment is by no means a new phenomenon, as studies have over the past 25 years have pointed to socioeconomic and racial inequities in school discipline. In addition, zero tolerance policies, which supposedly were intended to create safer learning environments, have increased suspensions and expulsions for conduct ranging from talking back to teachers and dress code violations drugs and weapons possession. Often, law enforcement is involved in these school matters, which are ineffective, and have a disproportionate impact on children of color, children with disabilities and low-income students.
An American Psychological Association taskforce on zero tolerance policies found “a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school wide academic achievement.” Further, the Penn report confirmed there is a strong correlation between expulsions and suspensions and subsequent participation in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
“The overrepresentation of Blacks among students impacted by discipline policies and practices has incontestably helped sustain the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ a term that signifies the roles schools play in putting certain students on pathways into the criminal justice system,” the report added.
This report comes months after a report on the 16 states where there are more prisons and jails than college housing. Half of those states–Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—are in the South. The remaining states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
In addition, a 2014 report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that ten states had incarceration rates above 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, and virtually all are in the south: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. Five of those states — Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas — had incarceration rates above 600 prisoners per 100,000, with Louisiana leading the pack with 850 prisoners per 100,000 residents.
In the New South, the old habits of slavery and Jim Crow are hard to break.