Essay Discipline Problems In School
RACIAL DISPARITIES IN SCHOOL DISCIPLINE
There are among us persons of so refined and delicate a nature that they cannot bear the guilt even of crimes they have not committed. Their shame is so great that they turn their considerable talents to serve the demagogues of bias. In this essay we analyze their efforts to document racial discrimination in school discipline, and humbly offer advice on how to improve their methods.
The Bias Hunters
In September 1999, six black high school students were expelled for brawling violently with other students at a Decatur, Ill. football game. Grabbing the spotlight, the Reverend Jesse Jackson made a house call. His presence in Decatur propelled a local event to the nation’s front pages. Sleepy sociologists awoke to the call. One team of investigators from the Applied Research Center of Oakland interrupted a study to rush forward with preliminary results. They found that black students are suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates. “The figures are astounding,” declared Rev. Jackson as he, the Oakland group and the press joined in mutual exploitation of the moment.
A year later, in the December 2000 issue of La Griffe du Lion, we asked:
Suppose a half-white, half-black school system suspends 1 percent of its students for disruptive behavior. What is the most probable racial makeup of the suspended group?
The question began the section, “Games with Fuzzy Variables,” but December’s game is June’s analytical scalpel. With it we will peel back layers of misinformation to reveal race and school discipline in a greater social context.
The year 1975 witnessed the first widely-disseminated report on racial disparities in school discipline. Issued by the Children’s Defense Fund, the report found that black students at all levels were suspended at 2 to 3 times the rate of whites. The bias hunters had arrived. Hundreds of studies and millions of dollars later they would learn little more.
Powerful statistical techniques – analysis of variance, Ï‡2, regression, correlation analysis and more – have been brought to bear on school discipline and race. Each new study adds to the annals of redundant findings. The essential result is now well established: Referrals, suspensions and expulsions are distributed asymmetrically with respect to race and ethnicity. So what new can La Griffe bring to an area so thoroughly picked over? Surprisingly, quite a bit.
The groundwork for our analysis was laid in December in the essay, “Aggressiveness, Criminality and Sex Drive by Race, Gender and Ethnicity.” There we developed the method of thresholds, a procedure that takes rates at which different groups cross behavioral thresholds (like committing assault), and from them constructs yardsticks for “fuzzy” variables that are otherwise hard to define (like aggressiveness). The method lends itself well to the analysis of race and school discipline.
In December, using assault as a threshold for aggressiveness, we found a black-white aggressiveness gap of 0.37 standard deviations (SD), blacks being the more aggressive. Data came from two sources. From INTERPOL we obtained rates of “serious assault” in 64 African and European countries. From the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) we obtained US assault data. Each source independently produced the same 0.37 SD aggressiveness gap. Even allowing for some degree of fortuity, the black-white aggressiveness gap was found to be invariant to cultural shifts across continents, compelling evidence that aggressiveness distributions differ among races and are intrinsic to them.
The threshold for “serious assault” falls way out on the aggressiveness scale, 2.86 SD from the black mean. The NCVS survey identified lower levels of assault from simple on up. Its threshold was much lower, 1.64 SD from the black mean. That aside, both data sets yielded the same black-white gap. From the standpoint of the method of thresholds, expulsion and suspension from school are simply new thresholds to be placed on the aggressiveness axis.
Discipline and Group Differences
Bias hunters who look for racial disparities usually find them. Their papers, though sullied by subjectivity, are valuable for the data they include. Such is the case of a much-referenced paper that appeared a few years ago. The paper, “Office referrals and suspension: Disciplinary intervention in middle schools,” Skiba, R. J., Peterson, R. L., and Williams, T., Education and Treatment of Children, 20, 295-315, (1997), examined disciplinary records in a large Midwestern urban school district for the 1994-95 school year. The large-scale study included all 11,001 middle-school students in the district, 98 percent of whom were either black (56%) or white (42%). By analysis of variance Skiba et al. convincingly demonstrated that African American students were suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their population in the schools. More important, the paper included raw data uncompromised by expectation or prejudice.
Skiba et al. found suspension rates of 17.1 percent for whites and 27.0 percent for blacks. We applied the method of thresholds (see Appendix) to these rates. It revealed a black-white aggressiveness gap of 0.34 SD, a value differing insignificantly from the assault data value of 0.37 SD. On the aggressiveness axis, suspension fell at 0.61 SD from the black mean, much lower than assault (1.64 SD), and lower still than “serious assault” (2.86 SD).
Figure 1 shows distributions of aggressiveness for blacks and whites. Drawn to scale, the curves are separated by a mean difference, Î”, of 0.37 SD. The thresholds for suspension (Skiba data), assault and “serious assault” are marked on the aggressiveness axis.