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Leland Ware, Discriminatory Discipline: The Racial Crisis in America's Public Schools, 85 University of Missouri Kansas City Law Review. 739 - 772 (Spring, 2017)(236 Footnotes Omitted) (FULL ARTICLE)

LelandwareA police officer assigned to a high school in Columbia, S.C., was asked to remove a disruptive female student from a classroom this afternoon. He responded by violently flipping the young student out of her chair and throwing her across the room. The incident sparked strong condemnation after a video from Spring Valley High School went viral. This is merely one vivid example of ways in which African Americans students are mistreated in the nation's schools.

Teachers and other school officials in districts across the nation are exercising their discretion in ways that treat African American students differently and less favorably than similarly situated white students. Academic studies produced over the past 30 years have consistently found racial disparities in the administration of discipline. Discipline is imposed more frequently and with heavier penalties on African American students than White students who engage in the same conduct.

Researchers also found the large and persistent overrepresentation of African American students in misconduct referrals, suspensions, and other forms of discipline was not attributable to racial differences in classroom conduct. When researchers controlled for differences in behavior, student demeanor, or personality traits (concentration, extroversion, closeness with teacher), grades, and other factors, African-American students were still far more likely to be disciplined than White students.

Until recently, the academic research focused on specific geographic regions within the nation. However, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights' 2014 report on school discipline collected data on nationwide basis and found glaring racial disparities in the imposition of discipline. This meant the depth and scope of the problem was much greater than previously known. An entire generation of African American students is denied access to equal educational opportunities.

Although the racial disparities have been documented, the underlying causes have not been explored. Over the last three decades a substantial body of research in cognitive psychology and other disciplines have confirmed that the causes of discriminatory actions often operate at an unconscious level without the perpetrator's awareness of the source. Explicit expressions of racial attitudes have become less frequent, but people often harbor more racially prejudiced views than they consciously realize. Implicit biases are supplanting explicit racism but they have the same deleterious effects.

This article analyzes the influence of implicit bias on student discipline. Part I examines the research documenting racial disparities in student discipline.

Part II examines the Department of Education's discipline data which shows, on a nationwide level, the extreme racial disparities in student discipline.

Part III explains how unconscious discrimination operates and its influence on student discipline.

Part IV shows the perpetuation and ubiquity of African American stereotypes that trigger implicit bias.

Part V examines the stereotype of young, African American males as dangerous, intellectually deficient, predators.

Part VI examines the unique forms of intersectional discrimination that young women endure.

Part VII explains how discriminatory discipline practices Violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act

. The final Part examines the Department of Justice and Education's efforts to address discipline disparities. The discipline disparities reflect a racial crisis in America's schools. More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education African American students are being denied equal access to educational opportunities in the nation's public schools.


Leland Ware, Louis L. Redding Professor, Kendra Brumfield, PhD student, University of Delaware.


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