Racial Disparities in School Discipline: How Much Can Be Explained by Teacher Bias?

Nationwide, major racial and ethnic disparities still exist in school discipline. Black boys are about three times more likely than White boys to be suspended or expelled.

A new study by Jayanti Owens, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, attempted to show how much of this racial disparity is due to teacher bias. Dr. Owens developed videos of White, Black, and Latino teenage male actors performing three identical sequences of misbehavior: slamming a door twice, texting repeatedly during a test, and throwing a pencil into a trash can and crumpling a test booklet. Dr. Owens then surveyed 1,339 teachers at 295 middle and high schools across the country. Each teacher watched a video presented at random, showing one boy performing one misbehavior. The teacher wrote a description of the kid’s actions and indicated whether they would refer the student to the principal’s office.

The results showed that teachers tend to blame Black boys more than White boys for identical misbehaviors and are more likely to send them to the principal’s office. Overall, teachers were 6.6 percentage points more likely to say they would send a Black boy to the office than a White boy, Dr. Owens found.

The teachers’ responses also depended on the school where they worked. Black boys also received harsher punishment because the schools they attend tend to have more punitive cultures. If the school had many minority students, teachers tended to blame all kids for misbehavior more, regardless of their race or ethnicity. In other words, schools that Black boys disproportionately attend appear to have a more punitive culture.

The full study, “Double Jeopardy: Teacher Biases, Racialized Organizations, and the Production of Racial/Ethnic Disparities in School Discipline,” was published in the American Sociological Review. It may be accessed here.

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