Earlier this year, a friend asked me to speak to her 10-year-old son about the importance of school and why he needed to remain focused and engaged. Listening to his concerns reminded me of “the talk” that the adults in my life used to give me as a young Black boy about doing what my teachers told me to do, regardless of my feelings, so that I could stay in school and achieve success. It felt eerily close to “the talk” that Black parents have with their kids about how to stay safe in their dealings with police. School should be a place where students feel safe to express their emotions, make mistakes, and learn in environments where they feel protected and nurtured, not a place where they must constantly be on guard and repress their feelings to avoid punishment and exclusion.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many students across the country, particularly Black boys, and it devastated me that my friend’s son fit into this category. Instead, a troubling reality persists within our education system: racial disparities in school discipline. Newly released data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) showed that in the 2020-21 school year, Black boys made up 8% of P-12 students enrolled nationally, but:

  • 15% of students who received in-school suspensions
  • 18% of students who received of out-of-school suspensions
  • 18% of students who were expelled
  • 18% of students subjected to corporal punishment

Exclusionary discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, has far-reaching consequences for all students as disciplined students often experience academic setbacks and disengagement in school. Racial inequities in discipline have been linked to disparities in attendance rates and long-term consequences, such as involvement with the criminal justice system and lower rates of college completion. These disparities, and the effects they can have on students as individuals, call for a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics of school discipline.

Individual educators’ actions play a significant role in the inequitable referral of students for discipline. While some teachers infrequently refer students for severe discipline, a small percentage of educators  — often called “top-referrers” — contribute disproportionately to the racial disparities in office discipline referrals (ODRs) and suspensions.

In a recent study, “Troublemakers? The Role of Frequent Teacher Referrers in Expanding Racial Disciplinary Disproportionalities,” researchers analyzed four years of data linking individual teachers in a large urban school district in California to their ODRs. They found that the top 5% of referrers effectively double the racial gaps in ODRs for Black and Latino students when compared to White students. These referrers were often the most novice teachers working in high-needs schools and did not stay the same year to year — years of experience seem to be a salient predictor of being a “top referrer,” as the likelihood drops dramatically as teachers hit their three year mark.

Students of color are more likely to attend schools with higher concentrations of novice and uncertified teachers than their White peers, further reasons for some of the inequitable discipline referral rates. An explicit focus on identifying strategies to attract experienced teachers to schools that serve higher concentrations of students of color and incentivizing retention of these teachers is important in addressing these inequities. Districts and schools must improve school cultures and working conditions for new teachers in these environments through policy levers such as collective bargaining agreements or compensation and career ladders.

The persistence of racial disparities in school discipline hampers the pursuit of a fair and just education system. To address this challenge, it’s essential to recognize the role that educators play in shaping discipline outcomes. It’s time for all stakeholders, from educators to policymakers, to work collaboratively to dismantle these disparities and foster a school environment where every student has an equal opportunity to succeed. Otherwise, students of color, like me and my friend’s son, will continue to receive “the talk” about how to overcome the barriers often placed in front of students of color by the very institutions tasked with supporting, protecting, and empowering them.