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Race & Justice News: Girls in the School-to-Prison Pipeline

March 16, 2014
Girls in the school-to-prison pipeline, school discipline reforms in Texas, Minneapolis, New York, and California, and more in our latest Race & Justice News.

Race & Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Compendium of Suspension Trends for Grades K-12

A new report from the Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles examines national trends in the 3.5 million public school suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year. In “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” researchers reveal significant disparities in the risk for suspension based on students’ race, gender and disability status, rank suspension rates for 48 states, and examine trends for every district in the nation. At the secondary education level nationwide, black students had a suspension rate of 23%, compared to 18% for students with disabilities, 12% for American Indians, 11% for Latinos, and 7% for whites. Among students with disabilities, black males had the highest suspension rate (34%), followed by Latino males and black females (23% each). After many years of widening, the report notes the overall suspension gap between blacks, Latinos, and whites narrowed slightly in 2011-2012 only because white suspension rates slightly increased.

rj news suspension rates by race

The researchers conclude that excessive use of suspensions as a disciplinary tool is harmful to all students, and should be alarming because of its contribution to the school-to-prison pipeline and disparate on the academic achievement and life outcomes of historically disadvantaged children. The report recommends eliminating excessive and disproportionate discipline, providing effective training for educators, and implementing discipline policy changes and practices that are informed by research.

Girls in the School-to-Prison Pipeline

While black boys are suspended three times as often as white boys, black girls are suspended six times as often as white girls, according to data from the Department of Education for 2011-2012. These data form the basis of a new report by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Priscilla Ocen, and Jyoti Nanda, titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected.” Produced by the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectional and Social Policy Studies, the report illuminates the unique ways in which racial bias contributes to stricter discipline for black girls. Among their recommendations, the authors call on schools, policymakers, and philanthropic organizations to include girls in research, advocacy, and interventions; to review and revise policies that lead to unwarranted levels of and disparities in discipline; and to identify signs of sexual abuse and support girls who are pregnant or parenting.

A recent analysis by researchers at Villanova University concluded that in addition to racial bias, black girls face colorism: darker skin tone significantly raised black girls’ odds of being suspended. Tanzina Vega of the New York Times has also illustrated the consequences of disparate school discipline through a profile of a young girl suspended from school and charged in juvenile court in Georgia.

School Discipline Reforms in Texas, Minneapolis, New York, and California

Recent Texas legislation has produced an 83% decline in children prosecuted in adult court for school violations, reports the Austin American-Statesman. By restricting police officers from issuing citations for most Class C misdemeanors that occur on school grounds, such as for fighting and disrupting class, these bills kept nearly 90,000 juvenile cases out of adult court and are encouraging schools to handle most disciplinary issues internally. A 2010 report from Texas Appleseed showed that police citations had grown dramatically and were disproportionately issued to black and Hispanic students. While skeptics claim that the laws reduce campus safety, advocates argue they “encourage more thoughtful use of the court system.”

Minneapolis’s schools superintendent, Bernadeia Johnson, writes in the Washington Post that new policies have produced a nearly 50% drop in the city’s school suspensions and referrals in the past year. Last year, the district adopted new standards that emphasized alternatives to suspension and it ended suspensions for the youngest students for nonviolent infractions. This year, the district has announced that it will review cases of potential excessive discipline based on race. Johnson plans to further review discipline policies, as black students are still punished more severely even with the lowered discipline rates. As she explains: “To close the achievement gap between white and minority students, our district must drastically change its approach to discipline.”

In New York City, even as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has not completely eliminated the practice of issuing suspensions for defying authority, it has newly ruled that principals must now get approval from the Education Department before such suspensions are issued. In California, USA Today reports that teachers suspended 200,000 students for “willful defiance” last year, down from 350,000 two years ago. California Department of Education data show that black students have accounted for roughly 20% of such suspensions since 2011, despite accounting for about 6% of student enrollment.

Iowa’s Racial Impact Legislation Having Modest Impact

The Associated Press finds that Iowa’s racial impact legislation, the first law in the country enabling lawmakers to assess the potential racial impact of criminal justice bills, appears to be having a modest effect. A review of 61 impact statements issued since 2009 suggests that the policy has been “helping to defeat some legislation that could have exacerbated disparities and providing a smoother path to passage for measures deemed neutral or beneficial to minorities.” Only 6 of 26 bills projected to have a disproportionate effect on people of color became law. Bills that were rated as having no or a positive effect on people of color were nearly twice as likely to pass. While other factors contributed to these outcomes and lawmakers underuse these impact statements, legislators say that this tool has shaped their debates. Former Rep. Wayne Ford, the law’s author, said, “What we started years ago has begun a movement.” Legislators in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Washington have recently introduced racial impact statement legislation.

Based on an analysis of four states currently conducting racial impact analysis (Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oregon), Jessica Erickson’s comment in the Washington Law Review makes three recommendations for states considering such legislation. First, criminal justice bills should automatically trigger racial impact statements, as states where this is not the case produce fewer impact statements. Second, states should more clearly define the scope and categories of analysis to be included in the impact statements. Finally, states should impose procedural requirements, such as public comment or comparison with alternatives, to encourage lawmakers to preempt new sources of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Unwarranted Racial Disparities and Increasing Punitiveness in Juvenile Justice

Whether they self-reported low, medium, or high involvement in delinquency, black and Hispanic boys were more likely to be sent to a correctional institution than their white counterparts, according to a study published in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice by Tia Stevens and Merry Morash. “Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Boys’ Probability of Arrest and Court Actions in 1980 and 2000: The Disproportionate Impact of ‘Getting Tough’ on Crime” reaffirms that racial disparities in youth detention cannot be entirely explained by differences in offending. The study also demonstrated increasing punitiveness for all young boys: “although boys self-reported less delinquent behavior in 2000 than in 1980, the proportion [of all boys] charged remained the same, … those charged were less likely to be diverted and more likely to be convicted,” and judges became more likely to send convicted boys to correctional placement. The authors attribute these changes to developments such as juvenile justice’s shift in the 1980s and 90s from informal remedies and rehabilitation to formal intervention and punishment, the increased presence of police in schools, and zero-tolerance school discipline policies. Youth of color – particularly black boys – have borne the brunt of this shift, particularly at the stage of arrest.

Racial Differences in Drug Arrest Rates Cannot Be Explained by Drug Offending or Community Contexts

In “Race Differences in Drug Offending and Drug Distribution Arrests,” published in Crime & Delinquency, Ojmarrh Mitchell and Michael Caudy evaluate three prominent explanations for racial and ethnic disparities in drug arrests: differences in the extent of drug offending, differences in the nature of drug sales, and racially biased law enforcement. They tested these theories using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which revealed that in comparison with whites, African Americans were 247% and Hispanics 60% more likely to have been arrested for drug distribution by age 29. Mitchell and Caudy found that the disparity between Hispanics and whites was largely explainable by neighborhood context: the disproportionate presence of Hispanics in neighborhoods with crime problems and heavy police presence. But they found that the black/white arrest gap cannot be explained by differences in selling patterns or by neighborhood context; rather, this disparity appears to be driven by racial bias. The authors propose de-emphasizing enforcement of low-level drug offending so that “a considerable amount of … law enforcement’s discretion would be reduced and, consequently, implicit racial bias would be restrained.”

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