The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The landmark case Brown v Board of Education of Topeka took on the “separate but equal” doctrine that created segregated public and private facilities in the United States. Segregated facilities became the law of the land in 1896 after the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson. In that case, Homer Plessy, an African American man, was arrested for riding a Whites only railway car in Louisiana. Plessy argued that this was a violation of the 14th amendment—only enacted in 1868—which gave equal protection under the law. The Supreme Court rejected this claim, arguing that enforced racial separation was not necessarily stigmatizing. The opinion also stated that “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane” . In other words, the Supreme Court argued that Black people were inferior to White people, and the Constitution could not just erase that difference. As a result, “separate” (segregated) facilities were seen as appropriate and legal as long as other, “equal” facilities were provided. This notion held until a group of 13 Black families filed a class-action lawsuit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. The families wanted to enroll their children in their local neighborhood schools, but could not because the schools were designated as for Whites only. The District Court of Kansas ruled in favor of the school district, citing the “separate but equal” doctrine. But when the case reached the Supreme Court, it was ruled unanimously to overturn school segregation. The Court’s opinion stated that “We conclude that, in the field of education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” . Today, schools are of course no longer segregated by law. So, they are not “separate” in that sense (but more on that below). However, as it relates to school suspension rates, they are indeed unequal. Black children are much more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than other children, especially White children.
Overall, K-12 (kindergarten through high school) suspension rates have at least doubled in the United States since the early 1970s . It is important to note that all American children have had to face this sharp increase in disciplinary action. Zero-tolerance policies impose harsh and inflexible penalties on students often for very minor infractions. It might be assumed that suspension only occurs for serious or dangerous incidents, such as possession of weapons or drugs. In fact, such cases only comprise 5% of suspensions. Other common reasons include disobedience, disrespect, and attendance issues (e.g., cutting class or tardiness). And, suspension rates are increasing despite the fact that the evidence shows that suspensions do NOT reduce disruption or improve learning environments. There is no evidence that suspension is effective in: lowering rates of disruptive or violent behavior; improving overall school safety; improving overall school climate; increasing graduation rates; creating gains in academic achievement; or creating gains for suspended/expelled students .
Thus, for all students, suspensions are an issue of concern. But, this issue is most problematic for Black students. The largest increases in suspensions have been for Black students, Black students have the highest overall rate, and they face suspension for different behaviors. For example, research shows that while White students tend to be suspended for behaviors such as smoking, vandalism, and leaving without permission, Black students tend to be suspended for disrespect, noise, and loitering . Losen and Skiba’s study examined suspension rates in middle school, a critical time for a child’s future academic success. Looking at data from 18 urban school districts that included many major cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore, Houston and Seattle, the researchers found that Black students consistently had the highest suspension rates.
This chart (recreated from Losen & Skiba’s original graphs) shows that Black students, both male and female, had the highest suspension rates for middle schoolers in 2006. The graph shows the percentage of students of each race that were suspended during that year. Note that for students of all racial backgrounds, males (blue bars) have higher rates than females (orange bars), which could be expected. However, Black females even have higher suspension rates than males of any race.
The table below shows the top suspension rates for Black students by school district. The numbers are the percentages of Black students who were suspended at least once in these districts.
Other data show that Black students are disproportionately suspended. As reported in the New York Times , data released from the U.S. Department of Education show that in 72,000 schools across the country, Black students were 39% of all suspensions, even though they are only 18% of the student body in the schools that were studied. And, Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than White students.
The graphs in the next two posts show the disproportionate rates in different cities. We chose these cities because they are major cities in the U.S. or because they have been identified as among the best (or worst) cities for Black children with regard to neighborhood environment . Environment was based on indicators such as segregation levels, income levels, poverty levels, home ownership, and more. The suspension data come from the U.S. Department of Education, and are available online . Across this wide variety of cities, Black students are suspended at far higher rates than they should be considering their percentage of the student body.
On the other hand, Black children are underrepresented in gifted and talented (GATE) programs. These data are also from the U.S. Dept. of Ed. For example, in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, there are smaller percentages of Black students in G&T programs than would be expected by proportion of the student body, and compared to other students.
What is the impact of the unequal suspension rates faced by Black schoolchildren? Many educators, social scientists, lawyers and legal scholars, and community and civil rights activists are arguing that overly punitive, and racially unequal school discipline is putting students on a “school to prison pipeline”, or “schoolhouse to jailhouse”. Consider the following examples:
1. As reported in the New York Times , in 2010, an “oldschool” fistfight in a North Carolina schoolyard that did not involve weapons or serious injuries led to the arrest and suspension of several students. Several students were suspended not just for a week, but for the entire semester. Additionally, they were told they could not attend an alternative school, and were also denied aid to study at home. The girls have sued, and their lawyers are arguing that denying an entire semester of schooling is unconstitutional.
2. As reported at rethinkingschools.org , a zero tolerance policy led to the arrest and transfer of a 5th grader: “Robert was an 11-year-old in 5th grade who, in his rush to get to school on time, put on a dirty pair of pants from the laundry basket. He did not notice that his Boy Scout pocketknife was in one of the pockets until he got to school. He also did not notice that it fell out when he was running in gym class. When the teacher found it and asked whom it belonged to, Robert volunteered that it was his, only to find himself in police custody minutes later. He was arrested, suspended, and transferred to a disciplinary school.”
3. As reported at rethinkingschools.org , Latino students also face harsh discipline: “Jose Gallego’s story is a case in point. The 23-year-old explained: “I’m a high school dropout. I was supposed to graduate in 2008, but I missed a few days of school because my parents were going through a hard time. They kicked me out of school. So, then I started selling CDs downtown. I was arrested for selling CDs, I was locked up, and I got out with a whole different perspective. I never had been in juvenile detention. I didn’t know what to do. I started selling drugs. Now I’m lost. I’ve got a little brother and a little sister, they don’t look up to me anymore. I’m a two-time convicted felon. It’s hard for me to get a job.”
We can see the schoolhouse to jailhouse trajectory here. Critical in all three cases is the involvement of law enforcement, resulting in arrests and potentially a criminal record at a young age. As reported by The Advancement Project (see video below),
students in Florida have been arrested for throwing a lollipop (charge: “battery”) and tapping a pencil on a desk (charge: “destruction of property”). The pervasive and excessive involvement of law enforcement to regulate children’s behavior in schools creates an environment where the smallest deviations are seen as requiring police intervention. As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, things look like nails. Many schools recreate the physical environment of prisons with metal detectors, searches and a heavy police presence in the hallway. When children are arrested, kept out of school through suspension, transferred or expelled, their opportunities to learn are jeopardized, which then puts them on course for greater risk of criminal activities. Research has shown that high school dropouts, particularly among Black males, are much more likely to become incarcerated. And, a criminal record devastates opportunities for employment and future productivity. Indeed, sociologist Devah Pager has shown that while a criminal record strongly reduces male job applicant’s chances for obtaining a job, it is particularly bad for Black men. In fact, her employment audit study showed that Black men without a criminal record were less likely to receive callbacks from employers than White men with a criminal record . Legal scholar Michelle Alexander contends that the massive incarceration of Black men in the United States constitutes “The New Jim Crow” ; a new racial caste system in which convicted men are stripped of many of the basic rights and resources in this country. (see one of her speeches below).
Therefore, the school to prison pipeline is so named because for many Black students, their experiences at school are preparing them for entry into prisons and the criminal justice system, not for educational achievement, a college degree, fulfilling careers, and financial success. We noted earlier that U.S. schools are no longer legally segregated, so they are not “separate” in the same way as before Brown v. Board. However, that does not mean schools are now integrated. Many schools remain just as segregated as decades ago. Most children must attend the school that is located in their neighborhood. And because most U.S. cities and neighborhoods remain highly segregated by race, that results in segregated schools as well. The dissimilarity index is an index used by social scientists to measure segregation. It ranges from 0 to 100, with 0 meaning no segregation at all and 100 meaning total segregation. The index tells us the percentage of people of one race that would need to move in order to create equal representation of both races throughout the city. Values of 60 or more are considered high. For example, a Black-White dissimilarity index of 60 means that 60% of the Black people in the city would need to move to obtain even spatial representation. Below are dissimilarity measures for Black and White children in 2000 and 2010, in metropolitan areas across the U.S . Metropolitan area here means a large geographic area, not just the city itself. For example, the metro area for New York City is not just the 5 boroughs, but includes the suburbs in Westchester and Long Island, and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut as well.
As can be seen, Black and White children in all these cities are highly segregated, with little improvement from 2000 to 2010. In fact, census data consistently show that segregation levels have not declined much in this country over the past 20 or 30 years. For that reason, most schools in those cities are segregated as well. Taken together, segregation levels and inequalities in suspension rates mean that U.S. public schools today continue to reflect the 1968 Kerner Commission’s admonition that “the U.S. is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
 Beeman, R. (2010). The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution. New York: Penguin.
 Warren, C.J., Opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. Available at:
 Losen, D.J., & Skiba, R. (2010). Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis. Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project. Available at: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/school-discipline/suspended-education-urban-middle-schools-in-crisis
 Lewin, T. (2012). Black students face more discipline, data suggests. The New York Times, March 6, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/education/black-students-face-more-harsh-discipline-data-shows.html?pagewanted=print
 Acevedo-Garcia, D., McArdle, N., Osypuk, T.L., Lefkowitz, B., & Krimgold, B.K. (2007). Children Left Behind: How Metropolitan Areas are Failing America’s Children. Available at: http://diversitydata.sph.harvard.edu/Publications/
 Department of Education, Civil Rights Data Collection. http://ocrdata.ed.gov.
 Eckholm, E. (2010). School suspensions lead to legal challenge. The New York Times, March 18, 2010. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/education/19suspend.html
 See: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/26_02/edit262.shtml
 See: http://www.rethinkingschools.org//cmshandler.asp?archive/26_02/26_02_fuentes.shtml
 Pager, D. (2003). The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology, 5, 937-975.
 Alexander, M. (2009). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
 McArdle, N., Osypuk, T., Hardy, E., & Acevedo-Garcia, D. (2011). Segregation falls for Black children in most metro areas but remains high; Fewer metros experience declines for Latinos. Available at: http://diversitydata.sph.harvard.edu/Publications/
To learn more about the issues we discuss, see the following list of resources:
A zine by Chicago youth: http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/_programsevents/_upcomingevents/_2011/_zinereleaseparty/may12.html#
Data and policy information: