Prior Problem Behavior Accounts for the Racial Gap in School Suspensions

Journal of Criminal Justice, February 26, 2014

Abstract

Purpose

A large body of empirical research finds a significant racial gap in the use of exclusionary school discipline with black students punished at rates disproportionate to whites. Furthermore, no variable or set of variables have yet to account for this discrepancy, inviting speculation that this association is caused by racial bias or racial antipathy. We investigate this link and the possibility that differential behavior may play a role.

Methods

Using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K), the largest sample of school-aged children in the United States, we first replicate the results of prior studies. We then estimate a second model controlling for prior problem behavior.

Results

Replicating prior studies, we first show a clear racial gap between black and white students in suspensions. However, in subsequent analyses the racial gap in suspensions was completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student–a finding never before reported in the literature.

Conclusions

These findings highlight the importance of early problem behaviors and suggest that the use of suspensions by teachers and administrators may not have been as racially biased as some scholars have argued.

[Editor’s Note: The full study can be found here.]

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