Issue Brief Reveals that Unconscious Bias Permeates Through School Discipline


Alarming disparities in the application of school discipline policies exist nationwide between African American, Latino and White students. A “2009-2010 survey of 72,000 schools (K-12) shows that while Black students make up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of all expulsions.” City-specific data from metropolitan regions across the nation demonstrate similar disturbing trends.

The Issue Brief: Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline: Implicit Bias is Heavily Implicated, shows that zero-tolerance policies that mandate automatic disciplinary consequences are applied unevenly across racial and ethnic groups, contributing to the disproportionality problem and creating risks of other negative life outcomes, such as higher drop-out rates, lower academic achievement, incarceration later in life and all of their collateral results.

Contrary to the popular assumption that school discipline policies are applied even handedly, research reveals that teachers and school administrators may unconsciously perceive the actions and capabilities of African American and Latino boys differently than their White peers. For example, in 2007 research found “statistically significant evidence that teachers hold lower expectations – either implicitly or explicitly or both – for African American and Latino children compared to European American children.”

Research also suggests that much disciplinary action in K-12 systems is in response to relatively minor, non-violent infractions such as “willful defiance,” where school employees choose more severe punishment for Black students over White students for the same conduct. School officials need training to help protect against unconscious racial biases that may be affecting such school discipline dynamics.

“Decades of research teaches that our understanding of the way in which race operates on the human mind is outmoded,” said Sharon Davies, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute. “Our K-12 school systems are not immune from automatic unconscious associations linked to race, gender or other social categories. We must become aware of the connections between disparities and unconscious biases to create the fair and inclusive society that we want for all Americans.”

Download the Kirwan Institute Issue Brief