Black Students More Likely to Be Disciplined at School Than Whites

(May 2013) Suspensions, expulsions, and arrests are strong predictors of trouble for students. Students in trouble tend to drop out or not graduate on time, which can ultimately diminish their lifetime earnings—and will make them much more likely to be incarcerated than those who graduate.1

Many youth advocates and civil liberties groups call actions that push schoolchildren out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems the “school-to-prison pipeline.”2 Cited by multiple sources as one of the key factors leading to the school-to-prison pipeline, “zero-tolerance” policies result in immediate discipline regardless of the offense.

In October 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi town of Meridian for allegedly operating a school-to-prison pipeline. The lawsuit cited examples of children in grades K-12 being handcuffed and arrested in school, then sent to a youth court and incarcerated without a probable-cause hearing. In a school district that is approximately 86 percent black, over a five-year period beginning in 2006, stated the complaint, “all of the students referred to law enforcement by the [school] District were black, all of the students expelled were black, and 96 percent of the students suspended were black.”3

“When we look at what’s going on in various districts—high numbers of kids being referred to police, arrested at school—[Meridian is] one of the worst examples, but plenty of schools are like that,” with school-aged children getting mixed up in court, said Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“When we looked at the data over five years, not a single white student had been referred to police, expelled, or arrested at school. Even in a high-minority district like Meridian, racial disparities still persist,” he explained.

Blacks Suspended at Higher Rates Than Whites

Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), when out-of-school suspension rates were examined by race, one in five black males and more than one in 10 black females were suspended in 2009-2010—higher than any other race. The next highest rates were among American Indians, then Hispanics: Twelve percent of American Indian males received out-of-school suspensions and 6 percent of females received suspensions; and 9 percent of Hispanic males and 4 percent of females received suspensions.4

Losen and his colleague Jonathon Gillespie analyzed data from the CRDC for risk of out-of-school suspension by race/ethnic group. Losen said of the latest rates from 2009-2010, “They remain really high and really disturbing.”

Losen’s analysis of the CRDC data found that suspension rates vary dramatically between states, and by race. For example, Illinois was highest for black students (25 percent), while North Carolina was highest for American Indians (18 percent).5 Though black students represented only 18 percent of all students, during the 2009-2010 school year, across all of the districts included in the CRDC, black students represented 35 percent of students who were expelled once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of all expulsions (see table).

Percentage of Students Disciplined, by Race/Ethnicity, 2009-2010

White Hispanic Black Asian/Pacific Islander American Indian
Overall Enrollment 51 24 18 6 1
In-School Suspensions 39 23 35 2 1
Out-of-School Suspensions (Single) 36 25 35 3 1
Out-of-School Suspensions (Multiple) 29 22 46 1 1
Expulsions 33 24 39 2 1
Referrals to Law Enforcement* 25 29 42 3 1
School-Related Arrests* 21 37 35 5 1

*Referrals to law enforcement and school arrests data are for districts with more than 50,000 students.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Summary” (March 2012).

For example, in North Carolina, black suspension rates for first offenses compared to white suspension rates for the same first offenses, demonstrates a particularly large disparity. Losen looked at 2008-2009 rates for North Carolina schools and found black students suspended at rates much higher than white students: eight times as much for cell phone use, six times as much for dress code violation, twice as much for disruptive behavior, and 10 times as much for displays of affection.6

Preventing Disproportionate Punishment

On March 22, the Department of Justice and the Meridian Public School District reached an agreement and jointly filed a consent decree to prevent and address racial discrimination in student discipline in district schools. The consent decree is awaiting a federal court’s final approval, but still pending is a related case against the Meridian Police Department, Lauderdale County Youth Court, and the state of Mississippi for allegations of violating the due process rights of students referred by the district.

Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, hopes “the children of Meridian can have a quality of education that will afford them freedom from an atmosphere of unnecessary punishment, so that they can grow and develop as productive citizens.”

Could this decision be the key to stopping harsher suspensions for black students? Losen is not sure. He said he expects to see more Meridians. The U.S. Department of Education asks many large districts, including Losen’s own Los Angeles, to provide information on students referred to law enforcement. The number of students referred to law enforcement in Los Angeles? Zero. “We know this is not true,” he said, but it’s the figure the Department of Justice has on record.

It’s important to press districts to give accurate data, Losen said. The public needs to know. “Who are schools calling the police on?” he asked. “Who’s in the juvenile justice system? The more we see, the more disturbing it gets.”

Tyjen Tsai is an editor/social media manager at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. National Council of La Raza (NCLR), School-to-Prison Pipeline: Zero Tolerance for Latino Youth (Washington, DC: NCLR, 2011).
  2. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Locating the School-to-Prison Pipeline (New York: ACLU, 2008).
  3. Department of Justice, “Justice Department Files Consent Decree to Prevent and Address Racial Discrimination in Student Discipline in Meridian, Miss.” (March 22, 2013).
  4. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Summary” (March 2012).
  5. Daniel J. Losen and Jonathon Gillespie, Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion From School (Los Angeles: Civil Rights Project, 2012).
  6. Daniel J. Losen, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline,” presentation for the Civil Rights Project, 2010.