When black and white kids act up or display troubling behavior at schools, teachers and administrators often address it with differing responses split along racial lines, new research shows.
Black students are more likely to be punished with suspensions, expulsions or referrals to law enforcement, a phenomenon that helps funnel kids into the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, white kids are more likely to be pushed into special education services or receive medical and psychological treatment for their perceived misbehaviors, according to a study released last week in the journal Sociology of Education.
Overall, this pattern often leads to the criminalization of young black students and the medicalization of white students.
The study, conducted by Pennsylvania State University assistant professor of sociology and criminology David Ramey, analyzed the rates of suspensions, expulsions and police referrals at 59,000 schools across the country. He also looked at how many students in these schools were enrolled in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, two programs designed to help kids in need of special services.
Ramey found that schools with larger populations of black students also had higher rates of suspensions, while schools with more white students had a greater number of kids in programs designed for students with special needs.
Ramey offers a few explanations for his findings. For one, to qualify for special services under IDEA, students must be given an official diagnosis from a medical or mental health professional detailing why they need extra help. Schools are given with funds to provide these extra, costly services from the government.
To receive special services under Section 504, however, students must display a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” but don’t need an official diagnosis. Schools don’t receive any funding for Section 504, so they must draw from their own resources to help students. This helps explain why schools with high populations of minority students are less likely to place students into special education services, according to the new research.
In addition, the study says many black families are “skeptical of medical and mental health research” because of the Tuskegee experiment, which involved researchers in the mid-20th century misleading and mistreating black men involved in a study about syphilis.
Disadvantaged schools also tend to have more one-size-fits-all approaches to discipline, leading to high rates of suspensions and expulsions.
“Where the population is more educated, parents make more money, housing values are greater, those districts tend to give a lot of autonomy to their schools,” Ramey told The Huffington Post.
A more insidious hypothesis is that suspending low-achieving students or medicalizing kids with certain disabilities helps schools boost their test scores.
“Some scholars have suggested that both the suspension and medicalization may be responses to standardized testing,” Ramey said. “If you suspend kids while they’re supposed to take the test, they no longer count against the school’s score.”
“Same thing with kids with borderline learning disabilities and putting them on medication,” he continued. “If a kid is borderline and you give them stimulant medication, that’s going to improve his or her test score and improve the school’s scores.”
Sadly, racial bias could also explain why black and white students are punished differently for similar behavior. Ramey explored this phenomenon in earlier research.
“The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors ― for example, classroom disruptions, talking back ― white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problem, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn,” Ramey said in a press release.