Betsy DeVos needs to come clean on school discipline
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

This year a six-year-old girl was suspended from first grade for “not following directions.” It’s disheartening to think of our youngest students being suspended from school before they’ve learned to write their names. 

But the unfortunate truth is that black students are punished more harshly and more often than white students. Tragically, such punishment is too often the first step on a path to prison.

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Department of Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos gives little assurance that she will prioritize the needs of black children in our school. When asked if she believed all schools receiving federal funding should be compelled to report on how and in what ways they discipline students, DeVos gave the same canned side-stepping response that she gave to all questions pertaining to requirements for federally funded schools: “I believe in accountability.”

But who will DeVos, whose confirmation vote is slated for Tuesday, hold accountable? Charter schools? Teachers, administrators and policymakers? Or just our students?

One reason it’s so important that we know how schools are disciplining our students is to ensure that punishment is apportioned fairly. Studies show that black students are disciplined at far greater rates than their white counterparts for similar violations, and it starts as soon as they enter the education system. We’re talking about little kids, who sometimes are being suspended for benign infractions.

Results from the Department of Education (DOE)’s Civil Rights Data Collection national survey released last year are startling. The survey included 1.4 million preschool students in more than 28,000 schools and found that Black preschool students are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.

This disparity only rises as black children advance through the education system. The same survey revealed that, across all grades, black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended and almost twice as likely to be expelled as white students.

Students who are suspended or expelled are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system within a year. Given these numbers, it shouldn’t be too surprising that while black students comprise only 16 percent of public school enrollment, 31 percent of all school-related arrests are of black youths. 

This disturbing pattern is commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline — and it’s ruining the lives of black children.

Despite the damning evidence, schools increasingly rely on punitive practices to respond to minor infractions. 

“Zero-tolerance” policies (let that term sink in while we discuss preschool children) are criminalizing minor infractions. Whether or not misbehavior is “tolerated” and how punishment is meted out to students depends on the authority and discretion of the classroom teacher.

The problem is further compounded as schools increasingly involve security guards and police in disciplinary matters, resulting in arrests for problems once dealt with by educators. Things that used to get a kid sent to the principal’s office — like stealing another kid’s lunch box or defacing school property with a magic marker — can now land a kid in the juvenile justice system. Fifty-two to fifty seven percent of kids in the juvenile justice system go on to reoffend before they reach the age of 25. When we study the trajectory of black students in our education system, the ravages of the school-to-prison pipeline are undeniable.

We can’t do anything to address the problem without knowing how far-reaching it is. If black kids matter to DeVos, there should be no equivocation about whether or not federally funded schools should report on how their students are disciplined. If she believes there’s a problem and that it must be tracked, she should say so outright.

The DOE’s current Civil Rights Data Collection national survey, derived from school discipline reports, is a critical resource that alerts us to institutional racism pervading every level of our education system. We need that hard data to force administrators and policymakers in our education system to acknowledge the role they play in school-to-prison pipeline. How can we be sure this reporting and research will continue under DeVos?

Anyone who cares about the fate of black kids in our schools should be concerned when DeVos sidesteps a question about the obligation of schools to report how and who they discipline. Our education system needs a leader who is unafraid to tackle systemic racial prejudice and injustice. Our black kids deserve a secretary of Education who cares about them.

Gina Womack is the executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children, an organization which works with children at risk of being imprisoned and their families. Follow her on Twitter @ginabwomack


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