It’s well established that black students have higher rates of suspension, expulsion and police arrests at U.S. public schools than other racial and ethnic groups. The office of civil rights inside the Department of Education monitors racial disparities in school discipline and found that black students were expelled and suspended at three times the rate of white students. Last year Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for schools to administer discipline more fairly.

Now a new analysis of the discipline data shows that not only are schools with more black students more likely to punish students more severely, they’re also less likely to steer students to mental health services. By contrast, more heavily white schools were more likely to respond to infractions with counseling and to devise behavior plans to help a student deal with anger or hyperactivity, for example. In other words, schools with more black students lean toward punishment; schools with fewer black students lean toward rehab.

“The decreased use of mental health services [in black schools], that’s been something that you hear about from people in the field and a claim made by advocates,” said Russell Skiba, a professor at Indiana University and the director of the Equity Project, which studies school discipline trends, “but this would be among the first studies to document it.”

The new study, “The Social Structure of Criminalized and Medicalized School Discipline,” by David Ramey, a sociologist at Penn State University, was published online May 28, 2015, in the journal Sociology of Education.

“We’re writing off large swaths of our population by creating these hyper-punitive school districts,” said Ramey. His concern is that criminalizing student behavior, rather than giving students the mental health services they need, makes it hard for many high schoolers to establish stable adult lives and often leads to prison.

“Suspensions and arrest rates are by far the highest in the districts where the disadvantage is high and in schools where the percentage of black students is high,” Ramey added. For his study, he defined a disadvantaged district as one with low median family income, low high school graduation rates, low participation in the labor force, a high percentage of households headed by single mothers and a high percentage of employed adults in low-paid sales and retail jobs.

Not surprising, higher-income school districts saw lower levels of punishment, regardless of the racial composition of the schools. But interestingly, higher-income districts had the largest black-white discipline gaps.  For example, in the same non-poor district, a school with 17 percent more black students than another school had a 30 percent higher suspension rate. Suspensions were only 13 percent higher for a school with more black students within a disadvantaged district. 

Ramey’s theory is that low-income school districts have more traditional top-down management structures where schools are required to follow disciplinary procedures set by district supervisors. In higher-income districts, by contrast, school administrators are given more autonomy to make disciplinary judgment calls, he believes. “It gives more room for the racial biases of school administrators,” explained Ramey.

In Ramey’s analysis of disciplinary records from almost 60,000 public schools during the 2009-10 school year, he did not find that schools with more Hispanic students had higher rates of suspensions, expulsions, arrests or referral of incidents to the police. But like black schools, Hispanic schools were also less likely to steer students to mental health services. Ramey counted two types of mental health services, one for students with a diagnosed behavioral conditions, such as attention deficit disorder, and one for students without a diagnosed medical condition, known as “Section 504″ students.

Regardless of race, Ramey found an increase in both punishment and rehab referral for schools with higher numbers of poor students, as measured by the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Among schools with similar racial compositions, Ramey found that the poorer schools, on average, had higher rates of suspensions, expulsions and police arrests or referrals, and higher rates of mental health referrals for students with diagnosed behavioral conditions. So the steering away from mental health services appears to be more of a problem in in black and Hispanic schools, and not simply schools with high poverty.

One weakness of the study is that there was no information on the number or type of behavioral incidents taking place at schools. Of course, some schools experience more disruptive and violent behavior than others, and that could provoke school leaders to respond differently. A question for future research is whether school officials cope better with student behavior using a mental health process when the number of incidents is small. But as violent and disruptive behavior escalates, Ramey wonders if there is a tipping point where frustration provokes school officials to call in the police and issue tougher consequences.

Another weakness of the study is that you can’t tell, by race, which students in a school were being punished or steered into mental health counseling. It is unknown if the students who were punished were more likely to be black or low-income, or if a black student in a predominantly white school was more likely to be punished or to receive mental health care.

Still this data analysis leaves us with several troubling conclusions. Troubled black students are less likely to get the behavioral counseling and support services they need. And instead, too many are growing up in schools with staggeringly high levels of suspensions and arrests. Life is less punitive in a higher income school district. But the gap between black and white schools is gigantic.

Which is worse? Too many suspensions, but smaller differences between blacks and whites, or fewer suspensions, with larger differences between the races? Ramey’s answer: “Both are problematic.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.