The nearly 50 million students in the US public school system are not all at equal risk of facing harsh disciplinary measures: Black students are more than three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school, according to our original analysis of data compiled by the US Department of Education.
The data also includes statistics on other ethnic groups, but in our investigation we focused in particular on the glaring and well-documented disparity between white and Black students using data collected by the department's Office for Civil Rights for the 2011-2012 academic year. The statistics show that nationwide 15 percent of Black students received out-of-school suspensions, compared with 4 percent of white students.
In several states, the disparities were especially alarming: Wisconsin suspended 26 percent of its Black students, but just 3 percent of its white students. In Minnesota, Connecticut, Iowa and Nebraska, Black students were six times more likely than white students to be suspended from school.
Virginia's statistics were similar to the national numbers: 14 percent of the commonwealth's Black students received suspensions, versus 5 percent of white students.
Expulsions are far less common than suspensions, but the pattern is the same. Nationwide, 1.6 of every 1,000 white students were expelled from school in 2011-2012, compared with five of every 1,000 Black students.
Ultimately, national data suggest that Black students are the overwhelming likely candidates for expulsions in comparison to their white counterparts -- even in school districts where demographically Black students are the unequivocal minority.
Virginia: A Case Study in Disproportionate Discipline
In Virginia, about two of every 1,000 African-American students were expelled, versus one of every 1,000 white students.
Other journalists also have looked at the US Education Department's Civil Rights Data Collection. The Center for Public Integrity, for example, focused on the number of students who were arrested or referred to police.
Its reporters found that Virginia had the highest rate in the United States for calling police on students: Of every 1,000 students in the commonwealth, almost 16 were arrested or referred to law enforcement in 2011-2012. Nationwide, the figure was about six in every 1,000 students.
Virginia's tendency to call the cops on kids has led Gov. Terry McAuliffe to initiate "Classrooms, not Courtrooms" in order to reduce disproportionate police referrals for students of color and students with disabilities. McAuliffe's new state initiative comes as the Center for Public Integrity reports that Virginia leads the nation in police and court system referrals.
McAuliffe's policy sets out to eliminate suspensions for minor offenses, such as cursing and refusing to sit down, in order to keep students in the classroom. Suspensions of this nature contribute to the "push-out" - not dropout - rate in schools, where students fall behind academically due to time out of school on account of behavior. "We cannot have our schools viewed as hostile environments where children are branded as criminals," McAuliffe said.
The data shows racial disparities when police get involved with students. In Virginia, for instance, about 25 of every 1,000 African-American students were arrested or referred to police, as opposed to 13 of every 1,000 white students.
In conjunction with the disproportionate suspensions of students by race nationally lies a disparity among students within the commonwealth's school districts. For instance, on a micro level, Greensville County Public Schools has a 64 percent Black student suspension rate -- in contrast to Hispanic students at 25 percent and white students at 30 percent of students suspended.
Virginia's percentage rate of expelled students is not indicative of any disproportionate targeting, due to the racial makeup of certain school districts, but larger school districts such as Henrico and Fairfax have glaring disparities.
The existence of this polarity has many reformers and advocates of school policy uniting with parents in order to address this disparity.
Efforts to Reduce Disparities
Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, conducts research on this very topic and fosters comprehensive reform of school policy. In the publication "Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice," he recognized that nationwide more than 3 million students were suspended at least once during the 2006 school year. This is approximately 7 percent of students enrolled in both primary and secondary public schools.
Solutions to this epidemic are outlined in Losen's publication, where he recommends that school districts with high rates of exclusions implement technical assistance in classrooms and behavioral management.
Evandra Catherine, 32, has a son with a disability enrolled in Richmond Public Schools. She expressed a concern that her child is vulnerable to the school district's policies.
"I am aware of my son's school district's financial plight when it comes to managing normal students," Catherine told Truthout. "So I have to be extra vigilant of his treatment, because of the lack of resources in play, which may recommend discipline instead of accommodating him."
Dr. Russell Houck, executive director of student services for Culpeper County Public Schools in Virginia, is an advocate of case-by-case disciplinary policy. He believes mild and moderate violations should receive mild and moderate levels of punishment.
"We work really hard to give students help, not punishment," Houck told Truthout. "For kids who have a chronic history of disruption, we have a students' assistance program where they can receive counseling and stay in school."
Houck said that this framework allows students to stay in school and by doing so prevents them from falling behind in class.
"Discipline in my world means to teach," he said. "We need to find new ways to teach them coping skills in order to get to the root of the problem, both behaviorally and instructionally."
Note: The national and Virginia-based statistics on racial disparities in discipline rates in this article were respectively calculated based on data from the Center for Public Integrity and the Civil Rights Data Collection. This spreadsheet presents our original calculations of these racial disparities.