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The country needs school disciplinary reform

Black girls are disciplined and suspended at far higher rates than white girls, and disproportionately fill the school-to-prison pipeline as a result. It’s time for Congress to do something about it.

Students headed for the school bus after leaving Samuel Adams Elementary School on March 16.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A new report found that, in Massachusetts, Black girls are nearly four times more likely to be disciplined — and five times more likely to be suspended — at school than white girls, reflecting a nationwide reality that leaves Black girls with far too many obstacles to success. While many states, including Massachusetts, have implemented disciplinary reforms aimed at reducing racial disparities over the years, it’s time for federal legislation to combat the persistent and consequential racism that school children face starting at a very young age.

Black students have no demonstrably higher rates of misbehavior and have often been punished for actions that their white peers never have to worry about. Black girls, for example, have been disciplined for wearing their hair in braids or refusing to cut their natural hair. Beyond that, Black children tend to be punished at vastly higher rates than white kids, in part because they are often viewed as older than they actually are. Studies have shown that both Black boys and Black girls are more likely to be perceived as adults than their white peers, and even Black girls as young as 5 years old are assumed to be older than their actual age.

“If you have these stereotypes operating in your mind, if you’re not seeing these kids as kids but instead seeing them as adults, you’re going to hold them more culpable for any actions or indiscretions that they may engage in, and you’re going to respond more punitively,” said Jamilia Blake, a psychology professor at Texas A&M University. “That’s what’s happening in our schools with Black girls in particular.” As a result, Black kids in schools across the country are robbed of their childhood.


Discipline inevitably leads some kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately impacts students of color, and especially Black children. When students are given detentions, suspended, expelled, or even arrested in schools, they are more likely to permanently drop out of school and find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system at a young age. “Many of [these kids] are going to be lost in terms of being able to participate in our democracy,” said Leah Hill, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied the school-to-prison pipeline. “These are America’s children and we are failing them in a big way. . . . We know that suspension leads to disengagement, and repeated discipline leads to people leaving school.”


Last year, congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts introduced an ambitious bill to tackle these very issues at a countrywide level. Known as “The Ending PUSHOUT Act,” the bill seeks to reverse systemic hurdles that Black kids face and that often push them out of school. Pressley proposes using federal grants to incentivize states and schools to ban discriminatory discipline practices through a range of measures, from implicit bias training to revamping grooming policies that disproportionately impact black children, to banning most suspensions and expulsions. The bill would also create a federal task force to study how disciplinary policies push out students and girls of color in particular, as well as require schools to publicly disclose disciplinary data.

Of course, some kids, whatever their background, will inevitably be disruptive, and teachers need to have tools to minimize any behavior that impedes other children’s ability to learn. And Pressley’s bill would provide schools with ways to ensure a safe learning environment. While it would promote more forgiving measures for minor infractions, it wouldn’t ban more drastic measures like suspensions entirely; rather, it would merely discourage more punitive disciplinary action. It would also equip teachers with more culturally sensitive intervention methods and invest in counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals to prevent some unruliness from happening in the first place. As Pressley told the Globe editorial board, these emotionally supportive practices — as opposed to more punitive measures — are proven to help children thrive academically.


Since 2014, Massachusetts and jurisdictions within the state have implemented reforms that have reduced racial disparities in school disciplinary actions. Suspension rates across the Commonwealth have declined, and Boston stopped suspending kids in or below second grade altogether. As a result, fewer Black girls have been suspended: In 2013, 16 out of every 100 Black girls were suspended, while 9 in every 100 were suspended in 2018. And discipline rates for Black students overall, girls and boys, have fallen by nearly a third between 2012 and 2017. But in spite of these reductions, the racial disparity in school disciplinary actions still persists, as the recent report showed, which is why more action, including federal legislation like Pressley’s, is required.

“Against the backdrop of this national reckoning on racial injustice, where we’ve been assaulted by these videos of the brutal murders of unarmed Black Americans, we can’t not also have this conversation about the criminalization that is happening in our schools. This is the most recent report, but this is not a new issue,” Pressley said.


When Black girls — who represent a fifth of the girls in the country’s preschools — make up over half of the girls who are suspended in preschool, as data from 2014 showed, it is more than evident that there is something deeply wrong with the way the American school system disciplines students. Every year that is wasted not reforming the disciplinary policies that lead to these disparities, another generation of Black students is denied the opportunities afforded to their white peers. For all the candidates running for office at every level across the country, this should be a priority. America’s children deserve nothing less.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.