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January 5, 2017

Over-punishing kids for minor infractions sets them on wrong path, prof says

James Huguley

James Huguley

When James Huguley, faculty member in the School of Social Work, was a middle school student in Providence, Rhode Island, he watched as classmates were disciplined for acting out and never recovered. Removed from school as a disciplinary measure, they were set on a different life path, Huguley observed, with less chance to succeed later in school or in life.

These kids got kicked out of school for “having an attitude,” he said. The harsh discipline imposed on them, if it could be undone, “would have dramatically impacted their lives.”

Huguley outlined the cause and the remedy for schools over-punishing kids for relatively minor infractions in the Center for Race and Social Problems December lecture titled “Just Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Greater Pittsburgh: Local Challenges and Promising Solutions.”

The school-to-prison pipeline, he explained, is “a set of school discipline policies in America, modeled after the war on drugs’ law enforcement policies, [which are a] punitive and unsuccessful way we manage a public health issue as a criminal justice issue.”

Generations ago, he said, kids misbehaving or even fighting in school might be punished, but they would not have been subject to law enforcement action. Today, following zero tolerance policies promulgated in the 1980s — and thanks to police officers being stationed in more than 68 percent of schools nationally — kids who are suspended are likely to enter the criminal justice system.

Such extreme school discipline measures have a deleterious effect on these kids’ futures — and those disciplines, studies find, are disproportionately meted out to kids who are black, Latino, LGBT or have special needs.

“It targets and it hurts our most vulnerable students,” he said.

In the 2010 academic year, for instance, one in 20 U.S. students was suspended, including one in five black males. Black kids represent 48 percent of suspensions in preschools. And the overall racial gap between white and black suspensions is even larger for females.

Could these statistical differences be a reflection of the fact that black kids are born into poorer backgrounds, which come with more cognitive and social challenges? The research finds this is not the explanation, Huguley said: “Racial gaps exist beyond what we would expect from socio-economic status.” In fact, studies have discovered that black students are disciplined more for some behaviors than whites, and black students are suspended more often for the same behavior than whites.
The No. 1 predictor of whether more kids will be suspended in a school, he reported, is the school principal’s attitude toward discipline.


“It would be one thing if these methods were effective,” Huguley said, although he admitted “it has an intuitive appeal”: Using law enforcement to discipline students would seem to be a deterrent, to keep all students safer and to make classes more teachable.

“The problem is,” he said, “it hasn’t worked.” He cited studies that showed students who were suspended just once were two-three times more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school. Multiple suspensions also increased the suspended students’ misbehavior and lowered their school achievement, hurting not only these kids but their schools’ own records of achievement and graduation rates. Increased suspensions means decreased math and reading scores for suspended students, he said.

He called today’s disciplinary measures “a failed academic strategy.” These measures also cost communities economically in terms of increased social services for such individuals later in life.

Implicit bias — unconscious prejudice — plays a role in perpetuating this system of over-discipline, he said, since it is pervasive in America against African Americans. A 2014 study found that 80 percent of whites in the U.S. had implicit bias against blacks, and 40 percent of blacks also had it.

“We’ve been conditioned to think along racial lines,” he said. Race blindness — in particular, the idea that it is possible to promulgate school policies that affect all children equally regardless of race — is “an illusion.”

He cited a 2016 Yale study in which teachers were told to watch a video to catch students who ought to be disciplined for behavior issues. The researchers tracked the teachers’ eye movements and found that they watched the black students more often.

“Their inclination was to look for the problems where they thought the problems would be,” he said. “These were preschool teachers.”


“Locally, we’ve had a lot of negative press for some of our larger urban districts,” Huguley allowed. In reality, districts’ self-reported data, submitted to the state, show that the 58 districts in Allegheny County have an average of eight suspensions per 100 students, in line with the state average of nine per 100 students.

However, he said, “the pattern is that in our higher African-American districts, our higher poverty students, we have higher suspension rates.” That includes Wilkinsburg, at 67 per 100, and Sto-Rox, with 65 per 100. Charter schools (whose statistics were tabulated separately) and districts with large numbers of working-class black students have rates in the 40s per 100; included in this group are Urban Pathways 6-12, City Charter High School, Woodland Hills and Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“So county-wide we do have some challenges,” he said. In response, several local districts have modified their discipline policies, including the latter two districts.

The national pattern of over-disciplining certain groups is reflected in local practices, Huguley pointed out. In local suburban, economically diverse districts with hundreds of black students, these kids are suspended four-eight times more often than whites.

Overall, he says, 80 percent of county school districts are over-suspending black students, or simply over-suspending all their students.


Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline involves a number of steps. For one, it requires school and community buy-in of the need for change. Ideally, schools would gather teachers, students and administrators to build trust and understanding.

A full-time, trained staff also should be dedicated to discipline and the issues surrounding punishment. They would have specialized training in restorative justice, which posits that suspended students must be eased back into school and the breach in the school’s safe community healed on both sides.

Overall, he said, schools must change their ways of dealing with discretionary discipline decisions for such subjectively perceived misbehaviors as defiance, and pay attention to the role of race in education. “Increasing the number of teachers of color really matters,” he noted: Black students are simply less likely to be suspended by black teachers.

Huguley hopes to speak with more districts having the best and worst experiences to look at the causes of their success or failure. And he believes districts need more resources to handle disciplinary issues, including more mental health supports for students.

Above all, he said, school officials must conclude “we’re here to face what we are doing courageously. We have to be empathetic to the students … We need to embrace the truth of where we are now and the truth of where we need to go.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 9

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