Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment

by Anthony L. Hubbard

A Real Issue

This is not a figment of my imagination. Racial and gender bias in dispensing school punishment is real. And because of (biased) disciplinary action in our schools, thousands of (otherwise) promising academic careers are cut short.  Often, because of these (perceived or real) infractions of school disciplinary norms, a student is stigmatized for his/her entire adult life, unable to thereafter fully benefit from our educational process.

What is surprising though is the dis-proportionality in handing out school punishment. There’s ample proof, supported by academic research and anecdotal evidence, that racial and gender bias does exist when disciplining a student.   In a research paper by the Indiana Education Policy Center, titled “The Color of Discipline“, the authors noted that:

“…no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons.”

And this study is not isolated in drawing such a conclusion. In a research paper from the University of Pittsburgh, School of Social Work and Center on Race and Social Problems, titled “Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in School Discipline among U.S. High School Students: 1991-2005“,  the researchers concluded that:

…Black, Hispanic, and American Indian youth are slightly more likely than White and Asian American youth to be sent to the office and substantially (two to five times) more likely to be suspended or expelled.

There’s no doubt then that, because of strict and biased enforcement of discipline practices in schools, a large proportion of African-American students, mostly males, get out-of-school suspension for nonviolent offenses multiple times. This eventually leads to them dropping out or being removed from school.

The challenge is real. So how do we improve our discipline policies?

Understanding the root cause

My involvement with under-privileged Afro-American students, many of whom have been the targets of disproportionately enforced school punishment, spans many years. And many of my current students have reported that they have been mislabelled early in their educational careers as being hyperactive and too aggressive.  This was done without the intervention of their parent(s), or without the parent’s comprehension or consideration of what happens at school.

A little effort on the part of teachers and school administrators to understand the underlying causes for Afro-American males exhibiting “disruptive behavior”, would go a long way towards reducing the number of unnecessary disciplinary actions or suspensions.

Common issues include anger management, alcoholism and drug dependencies, poor family relationships and peer skills, violence, gang activity, and lack of clarity about the consequences of one’s actions or about one’s available options.  The lack of support networks and no clear Afro-American male role models in their lives also foster the desire to engage in “disruptive behaviour”.

Best practices

Now that we know the problem, and understand some of its root causes, what can we do to eliminate racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment? From my experience, after years of trying different behavioral management models with males of color, the best approach to addressing this issue must center around:

  • Relationship building: Foster better and more cordial relationships between students, teachers, and other school staff. The anticipated outcome is the reduction in the number of suspensions, increased graduation rates, and reduction in the number of young African-American men entering into the juvenile justice system.


  • Re-evaluating zero tolerance policies:  Once educators recognize the root causes for “disruptive behaviour”, they need to focus on redressing those causes instead of “not tolerating” them. Each time an “infraction” is (or perceived to be) committed, use that as an opportunity for correction rather than an excuse to punish or expel.


  • Provide alternatives to suspensions and establish restorative practices: Dealing with the “Class Clown” is a prime example of how alternates to suspension might work. Clowning has one objective – to be suspended! It comes from the deep seeded desire to get out of the classroom in any way possible. Instead of rewarding the “clown” (by suspension), create restorative justice practices using lessons that focus on independent, personal discovery and realization, rewarding small victories and most of all understanding that all students learn differently and incorporating differential instructional practices.


  • Using early intervention measures: Quite often teachers and academic staff are able to spot challenges in “difficult students” much before the issue manifests itself as “disruptive behaviour”.  That is the time to intervene and address the cause for the non-conforming behaviour.  Individual counseling, coaching, mentoring and early intervention can greatly reduce the subsequent need for stricter punishment.


  • Supportive school culture: Assign a faculty advisor to each student, who assists the student with goal-setting and with shaping their learning program according to their needs. In effect, what this creates is an adult “go to” support network for the student, and gives them (the student) an opportunity to have meaningful dialogue with, and receive individual attention from, teachers and educators.
  • Create student success teams: By forming teams (of Teachers, Parents, Mentors and other adult figures) that can exert positive influence upon a student, educators can often avoid the need for referral for formal assessment for special education purposes.