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Racism and School Discipline: From Schools to Prison, or Schools As a Prison

Michelle Alexander’s (2010) book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, first published 10 years ago, unmasked how the prison industrial complex has become a modern racial caste system that disproportionately affects Black and Brown families. The system of Jim Crow legally ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but in her book Alexander explains how the current web of legal and policy channels that may on the surface seem non-racial is very much an intentional form of white supremacy and modern-day slavery that is hidden in plain sight. She contends that we as a society have decided that those who are deemed criminal should be out of sight, out of mind, and undeserving of humanity. Moreover, the prison industrial complex is also neoliberal as public and private entities conspire to mastermind how prisons can serve to make profit. Like most neoliberal structures, the prison industrial complex is not partisan as both Republican and Democratic political decisions are responsible for its construction (Alexander, 2010). Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law, and Barack Obama funneling billions of dollars from the 2009 stimulus package to support state and local law enforcement in fighting drug crime are all policies that furthered the policing and exponential imprisonment of Black and Brown people (Alexander, 2010).

However, the criminal “justice” system and all its political and legal complexities is not the only system that fuels the prison industrial complex, as PK-12 education is part of the problem as well. Black students, specifically, are disproportionately disciplined more than any racial or ethnic group, and this racial injustice begins as early as preschool. For instance, in the 2013-14 school year, Black students only represented about 19.5% of preschoolers but 46% were suspended once and 48% more than once, whereas white students represented 42% of preschoolers that year but only 28% were suspended once and 27% more than once (U.S. Department of Education, 2014). Black students are more frequently and harshly disciplined not because they act out more or engage in more severe behaviors than other peer groups, but unfortunately because schools largely view them through a deficit lens (Rudd, 2014). Moreover, with every disciplinary infraction a student receives, the probability of them being a product of the criminal justice system at some point increases, a phenomenon now widely known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2019), the “prison track” or the “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to

how education policies implemented over the past several decades have worked to remove students from schools and funnel them onto a one-way path toward prison. Behavior that once led to a trip to the principal’s office and detention, such as school uniform violations, profanity and “talking back,” now often leads to suspension, expulsion, and/or arrest.

(p. 38)

In their review of the research, Skiba, Arredondo, and Williams (2017) identified four common themes on how the research problematizes the school-to-prison pipeline: (1) exclusionary forms of discipline such as out-of-school suspensions and expulsions have become “widespread, systematic, and increasing” in usage; (2) the severity with which exclusionary discipline policies and practices are implemented in public schools not only decreases young people’s chances of experiencing success in school but also increases the likelihood they will encounter negative life outcomes, especially involvement with the juvenile justice system; (3) exclusionary disciplinary practices and the resultant outcomes disproportionately impact students of color; and (4) the construct “school-to-prison pipeline” suggests that it is the school’s policies and practices and not simply students’ characteristics that are to some extent responsible for these negative outcomes (p. 113).

There is not a direct, linear path from school to justice system involvement. A variety of factors drive the school-to-prison pipeline (Skiba et al., 2017). Schools with a negative culture and climate have higher incidents of exclusionary discipline practices, and so school culture and climate matter to educators’ disciplinary practices (Skiba et al., 2017). For example, Mattison and Aber (2007) found that Black high school students had more negative perceptions of their schools’ racial climate as compared to their white peers, and their experiences with racism was associated with getting lower grades and more detentions and suspensions than their white peers. Therefore, students’ of color experiences with racism negatively affect their overall learning opportunities, academic achievement, and level of engagement in school. Also, when a disciplinary consequence is used to remove the student from the educational setting the student is essentially excluded from and denied learning opportunities. This loss of instructional time due to exclusionary discipline is not only tied to poor achievement outcomes, but also hurts the student’s ability to form positive relationships with teachers and school administrators causing the student to be disengaged from school (Lewis, Butler, Bonner, & Joubert, 2010; McNeely, Nonemaker, & Blum, 2002). Repeated suspensions further disengage students from school and increase the likelihood they will drop out (Fabelo, Thompson, Plompkin, Carmichael, Marchbanks, & Booth, 2011). Thus, instead of waiting for a student to drop out of their own accord, repeated suspensions are a mechanism in which a school can push a student out (NCSSD, n.d.). The justice system is the final stop in the school-to-prison pipeline. Even as early as third grade, students who receive one or two suspensions are eight times as likely to be placed in alternative schools and students who receive three or more suspensions are 25 times as likely (Vanderhaar, Petrosko, & Munoz, 2015). Getting suspended in middle school or high school also triples a student’s likelihood of juvenile justice contact the following year (Fabelo et al., 2011).

The alarming rate at which students of color are harshly disciplined has been on the educational policy radar for some time now, with even some state and local reform efforts being implemented to redress these racist practices (Rafa, 2019). Nevertheless, this increased awareness of the problem has not improved the lived realities of students of color as they still have a higher probability of being a victim of exclusionary disciplinary practices. For example, in the 2015-16 school year, which is the most recent data available, Black male and female students each represented approximately 8% of all public school students, but were 25% and 14% of students respectively who were suspended out of school, while white students across both genders were underrepresented (U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2018). Nationally, Black students are a victim of exclusionary discipline more so than any racial or ethnic group, and it is important to extend beyond the

Black-white paradigm and explore how context matters to who is on the receiving end of more discipline practices. In Wyoming, for example, disproportionate suspensions are highest among Native American and Latinx students. For female Native American students, there is a +5.5 percentage point difference between their rate of enrollment and percent of all suspensions, and a +5.6 percentage point difference for male Native American students. Latinx students have a +3.8 percentage point difference between their rate of enrollment and percent of all suspensions, and a +3.9 percentage point difference for Latinx male students. Yet, white students are significantly underrepresented for discipline referrals with white females at a -12.5 percentage point difference between their rate of enrollment and percent of all suspensions, and white males at a -12.7 percentage point difference.

Exclusionary discipline is any form of disciplinary practice that results in removing or excluding a student from their typical educational setting (NCSSD, n.d.). Exclusionary disciplinary practices include inschool suspensions where students are removed from class but still supervised, out-of-school suspensions where a student is temporarily removed from their school for at least half a day, and expulsion that removes a student for the remainder of the school year with or without any educational instruction (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Moreover, for many students policing in school has become the disciplinary norm, and some urban school districts like Baltimore City Public Schools (Maryland) and Austin Independent School District (Texas) have their own police forces. For students of color, school is not only a potential pipeline to prison, but school can already feel like a prison. In this chapter, we further examine the racial implications of exclusionary discipline practices, focusing on two policy issues: (1) zero tolerance policies and (2) the role of policing and criminalization of students of color in school. We then discuss how strategies like Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS), while intended to be a more humane alternative to exclusionary discipline practice, may instead maintain white norms for student behavior. Finally, we make recommendations for more antiracist alternatives to exclusionary discipline practices.

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