Teachers Give Black Students Fewer Warnings Before Punishments Escalate

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As racism takes front and center following the recent deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, a recent study reveals how racial disparities impact black children at young ages in a place that’s supposed to be a safe haven: school. Researchers say that black male students are much more likely to receive harsher levels of discipline without the benefit of advance warnings.

University of Illinois researchers studying racial and ethnic disparities found that black middle school students are far less likely than their white peers to receive verbal or written warnings from their teachers about misbehavior. This puts these children at greater risk to be caught up in such escalating and exclusionary punishments as office referrals and expulsion.

“While at first glance, disparities in teacher warnings seem less concerning than being expelled or sent to the principal’s office, warnings represent opportunities for students to correct their behavior before the consequences escalate and they’re removed from the learning environment,” says lead study author Kate M. Wegmann, a social work professor with the university, in a release.

Numbers Don’t Lie: Black Students More Likely To Be Punished Without Warning

Researchers used data collected from more than 4,100 students attending 17 schools in two North Carolina communities. The students were in sixth through ninth grades. Participants were surveyed about the types of misconduct they had been involved in at school — and how often — over the previous 30 days. These infractions included tardiness, turning in homework late, arguing with teachers and physically fighting with other students.

Students were questioned about the types of discipline that occurred. Were they given verbal warnings from their teachers? Were phone calls or written warnings sent to parents? Or was there an exclusionary type of discipline, such as being sent to the principal’s office or being given a suspension from school?

Researchers say they weren’t shocked to find that black students received more exclusionary types of discipline than their white peers. But they were surprised at how often blacks students were not given written or verbal warnings.

To be sure, the authors first calculated and compared percentages of black or white students reporting each type of misbehavior and its consequences. While black students made up just 23% of the children in the study, they were involved in 35% of office referrals and 37% of school suspensions. The results also show that about half of the students with three or more suspensions or three or more warnings or reports to parents were black.

The second data analysis technique, called binary logistic regression, made it possible for researchers to see disparities by race and sex for types of misbehavior and levels of discipline. For students reporting three or more episodes of misconduct, black students were consistently less likely than white students to be warned by teachers or to have messages sent to parents.

Racial…And Gender Disparities

Overall, black students of either sex were 84% less likely to have multiple warnings sent to parents. Incredibly, black males were 95% less likely than white males to be given verbal warnings from teachers.

The research also found that black males were the most likely of all students to be suspended three or more times. Black females were not more likely than white females to be suspended, but were more likely to be warned or referred to the principal’s office for similar infractions.

“These findings point toward a trend of heightened consequences with little or no forewarning for black male students, even when behavioral infractions are accounted for,” Wegmann concludes.

Study findings are published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review.

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