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School Discipline Creating 'Black Flight' In Certain Districts

Man stands in front of GLT logo.
Charlie Schlenker
Illinois State University Professor Charles Bell will host a panel discussion on Illinois' 2015 reform law.

Education researcher and Illinois State University professor Charles Bell said that the difference in school discipline given to white and black students can lead to a minority exodus from certain districts.

Four years ago, a string of state laws were passed aimed at reducing the number of suspensions among Illinois students. While suspensions have gone down statewide, it has widened the racial divide.

“In many cases,” Bell said, “black students are disproportionately suspended for more violent offenses and even for nonviolent offenses. In some cases, black students may engage in a status offense—a dress code violation for example—a white student may not get suspended for that (but) the black student gets sent home.”

Bell’s research also showed that black students who committed a minor offense were suspended for longer periods of time than their white counterparts.

“One example is challenging an educator on an assignment,” he said. “Articulating that you felt the assignment was biased or insensitive to a cultural aspect and that results in a 10-day suspension.”

And those 10 days of missed instruction are not only detrimental to the students’ education, but to their mental and social health.  

“When (the student) returned after a 10-day suspension,” Bell continued, “they had a lot of difficulty catching up—many students stated they never caught up. I can tell you that feelings of belonging in school were significantly impacted.”

According to Bell, students and parents feeling targeted by the school or the district would leave. He has coined this ‘black educational flight’.

“(The families are) continuously moving and relocating to different districts in Illinois, searching for a place where their child would not be subjected to excessive school discipline.”

Bell said that research shows that feeling valued as a member of the school culture has a large impact on being successful in class both academically and socially. When pulled from the class setting for long suspensions, it adversely affects the student and can lead to further suspensions. The stacking of suspensions leads to an even wider gap between the student and the classroom.

Putting these gaps into perspective, ProPublica reports that Unit 5’sblack population are 4.6 times more likely to be suspended than white students and are 2.6 grades behind white students on average. District 87 sees black students 3.5 times more likely to get a suspension and 2.7 grades behind compared to their white counterparts.

Why are we seeing numbers like these after the reform laws?

“In many instances this was a building or school based phenomena where some schools actually took the reform law really seriously and were aggressively trying to reduce suspensions,” Bell said. “Where other schools completely disregarded it—they felt that suspensions were the only way they could remove students who were problematic from the school setting. They also felt the law had no enforcement (so) what are you going to do to me?”

While some schools and districts did comply with and have shown significant gains in reducing suspensions; Bell said that some schools felt taking the power of suspension from them took their only means of discouraging problematic behavior.

“It actually created an environment where teachers felt they would be threatened…where they couldn’t suspend students so they felt that the students knew they wouldn’t get in trouble and it would embolden (them).”

But this antagonistic friction is problematic itself.

“How can you teach children that you are afraid of?”

Bell said that the districts and schools that continue to use excessive disciplinary suspensions tend to be in predominantly black, poor, or working-class communities where it could be normalized. Even then there has been data, according to Bell, that shows that even among white peers of the same socio-economic status, black students are suspended more.

“We have to find the root of the issue,” Bell said, “which in many districts is different. In some it’s just a fear or a rush to remove certain students. We have to have some kind of cross-cultural competence training as to why we are afraid of the attire of a student.”

That training could help educators break through misconceptions about articles of clothing (Bell offers the example of a hooded sweatshirt) being related to criminality. Rarely is the teacher’s response to minority students a result of in-classroom events; much of the time the teacher brings misconceptions with them from outside the classroom.

Beyond teachers, how can administrators be convinced to work toward lowering suspension rates among minority students?

“Administrators who have not bought in, we need to have a conversation about why they haven’t bought in already,” Bell said. “Usually its from opposition from educators…when we think about racial disparities in school suspensions, this isn’t something that has been going on for five years this is something we can trace back thirty, forty years ago. It’s almost like it’s engrained in teachers where they come into districts and they learn that (suspensions are) how we handle things. This is a culture that’s been established.”

And with anything so engrained in a culture, the impetus for change is recognizing there is a problem.  

“Acknowledging and owning that suspensions are not the solution but are part of the problem,” Bell said, “is one key thing I see in all those districts (making forward strides).”

Bell will present some of his research findings as well as host a panel of students and lawmakers who helped draft the 2015 reform law on Aug. 30 at 1pm in room 130 of Illinois State University’s Schroeder Hall.

GLT's full interview with Charles Bell.

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Sean Newgent is a senior journalism major at Illinois State University. He's an intern for the GLT newsroom.
WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.