Fear is a powerful motivator. It taps into our deepest anxieties and plays a crucial rationalizing role in our actions. The politics of fear are useful when trying to mobilize particular constituencies, but can often lead to bad policy. No matter how deep-seated or triggering, for our fears to be legitimate, they must be based on a set of facts.
As debate about a proposal from the Guilford County Board of Education’s policy committee to offer students receiving a short-term suspension due process wages on, there are some important factors to consider.
It is widely acknowledged that in school systems across America students of color experience exclusionary discipline at rates often several times that of their white counterparts. According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction Consolidated Data Report, the likelihood of some racial subgroups of receiving an out-of-school suspension is 300% greater than for whites students. This fact is both unnerving and curious considering there is no evidence to suggest that students of color commit more suspendable infractions. In fact, research suggests that when white students and students of color do the same thing, the response toward Black and Brown students is more punitive.
In our recent study titled E(race)ing Inequities: The State of Racial Equity in North Carolina Public Schools, the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) analyzed data on all 1.5 million public school students in the year 2016-17 disaggregated by race. We looked across 30+ educational outcomes and access indicators to determine if race had a significant influence. When specifically examining discipline we find across the state, Black, Multiracial, and Native American students are more likely to be suspended out of school, even when accounting for other factors such as gender, socioeconomic status, ability, etc. Of note are the kinds of things for which they are suspended. What are known as “subjective” offenses are left to the interpretation of those in authority, which differ from traditional objective offenses like fighting, drugs, or weapons. Consequently, much of the racial disparity in discipline is for things like “disrespect”, “insubordination”, and “aggressive behavior” — determined at the discretion of school leaders.
Despite fears of creating a more dangerous, less secure school environment by offering students the right to appeal, short-term suspensions are not typically for reportable crimes or offenses.
North Carolina General Statute 115C-390.6 currently prohibits students from appealing the decision to render a short-term suspension, unless a policy is in place at the local board level to allow for it. Guilford County Schools is not unique in its disproportionate suspension of students of color. These suspensions translate into loss of instructional time, increased absenteeism, and higher likelihood of dropout. Additionally, a policy structure that does not afford students due process rights inevitably cements a mile in the school-to-prison pipeline that puts juveniles in unnecessary contact with the court system.
According the North Carolina School Justice Partnership, 40% of referrals to the juvenile justice system come from schools, with 94% being for misdemeanor nonviolent offenses. This cuts at the heart of the argument that simply allowing for the families of students to appeal this process will somehow make schools disorderly and prone to crime.
Adopting a policy that affords due process rights to students in the event of short-term suspension is a modest first step in eliminating the structural biases that exist in the education system. It is a proactive measure that acknowledges the place where racial inequities thrive and provides a remedy to ensure fidelity for all students. In the end, schools still retain the authority to administer suspensions where necessary. This policy merely ensures the process is done in a way that is integral.
We are compelled as stakeholders in education to ensure our systems function in an antiracist fashion. This policy will no doubt receive a fair share of resistance, but ultimately ensures students of color have greater educational opportunity in an environment where it is already considerably diminished.Equity