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Innocence Denied: 
Elementary Black Boys Under Surveillance and Inequitably Disciplined (Again)

Kazaam is a 5-year-old kindergarten Black male. He is a happy, energetic child. However, his teacher often has to tell him to sit down and stay on task to do his work. He is what Boykin calls ‘vervistic’. Rather than trying to understand his learning style, the teacher assumes he is acting out and defying her directions. She writes a referral, and Kazaam ends up in the office with the principal and being reprimanded for his behavior. He is required to serve one day of out-of-school suspension to ‘learn his lesson’.

Research on Racism, Anti-Blackness, Deficit Thinking, Adultification

Dr. Donna Y. FordDr. Donna Y. FordKazaam’s story is by no means unique, which is quite unfortunate. To state the obvious, this is troubling, unjust, and must change to improve the educational experiences of Black students, Black boys in this case. In a new 2024 report, the ongoing, excessive, and inequitable over-disciplining of Black students, especially boys, is discussed. The study focuses on very young Black boys, which speaks again to the policing of Black bodies of all ages. The report has found what national data reveal from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), the largest database nationally, on school districts and buildings.

The OCR’s CRDC gathers and publishes key information about student access to educational opportunities and school climate from public schools (pre-K through 12th grade) in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In this 2022 snapshot of the 2017-18 school year, OCR found stark differences in suspensions between Black boys and all other student groups. Table 1 presents findings from the CRDC. Boys of all races were disproportionately disciplined, but Black boys were suspended and expelled at proportions that were three times their school enrollment. To this point, in each year of data Zimmermann (2024) analyzed, Black elementary students were more likely to be suspended than white secondary students. For more information, we refer readers to Figure 2 in the report, titled “Trends in Out-of-School Suspension Rates, by Race and Ethnicity and School Level, 1973, 2011–12 to 2017–18.”

Table 1Office for Civil Rights CRDC Overview of Student Discipline K-12Zimmermann (2024) found that “the suspension gap between Black students and their peers in other racial and ethnic groups, regardless of their disability status, also saw little progress over the 6 years of data we analyzed. For example, in 2011–12, Black students with disabilities were suspended at 2.5 times the rate of White students with disabilities (23% vs. 10%), a 13 percentage point difference. By 2017–18, this disparity had only decreased slightly to 11 percentage points (19% vs. 7%).”

Overall, girls received fewer suspensions and expulsions in comparison to boys. Note that among girls, Black girls were the only group across all races/ethnicities who disproportionately received suspensions and expulsions.

These two passages from the U.S. Department of Education and Justices speak volumes about racial inequities:

• The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice (Departments) share with educators around the country the goal that all students attend schools where they are supported, safe, and able to access an excellent education. A school environment that is free from discrimination is essential to meeting that goal. Decades of enforcement activity by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title IV), have demonstrated that discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in student discipline was, and continues to be, a significant concern.

Dr. Erik M. HinesDr. Erik M. Hines• Discrimination in student discipline forecloses opportunities for students, pushing them out of the classroom and diverting them from a path to success in school and beyond. Significant disparities by race – beginning as early as preschool – have persisted in the application of student discipline in schools, while racial disparities in student discipline alone do not violate the law, ensuring compliance with federal nondiscrimination obligations can involve examining the underlying causes of such disparities. In specific cases, the Departments and the courts have concluded that violations of the laws the Departments enforce underlie these disparities.

Tragically, Kazaam’s story is all too familiar. Equity-minded educators are needed to disrupt the negative experiences and outcomes for the thousands of Black boys his age and older.

Recommendations

Using case studies, OCR summarized actions several districts were making to correct disciplinary actions. We share a snapshot.

Table 2Sample Actions Taken by School Districts and DescriptionsTo resolve OCR’s Title VI noncompliance determination, the districts committed to take actions including, but not limited to, the following (Table 2):

Note: *We understand the importance of early intervention. Even more powerful is prevention.

Additional recommendations are shared by Leung-Gagné, McCombs, Scott and Losen (2022) in an article, titled “Pushed Out: Trends and Disparities in Out-of-School Suspension.” Below, we offer our recommendations that overlap with the above reports.

Interviewing applicants for biases. Some districts are screening teacher applicants for racial biases, which we strongly support and encourage. In this document, Halicks delineated several implicit biases. We have maintained terms for the seven biases, but modified the descriptions to focus on educator applicants/interviewees – teachers, administrators, counselors, and psychologists. To be frank, we also want all school personnel (e.g., staff, secretary, cafeteria workers, nurse, etc.) to be interviewed with race-based biases in mind.

• First Impressions Bias: This occurs when an applicant makes a snap judgment about Black students within seconds of meeting them.

• Affinity Bias: The tendency to want to work with students we like, students who are like us culturally, and families of students who we can socialize with.

• Stereotype Bias: This occurs when the candidate believes that students have specific traits, because they are a member of a certain racial and cultural group.

• Contrast Bias: The tendency to compare one student or a group of students to each other.

• Gender Bias: The influence of gender on the assessment of students (e.g., sexism).

• Race Bias: The tendency to treat non-white students differently in class and assess them as less competent when the same qualifications are presented by white students.

• Halo Effect/Horn Effect: This can happen when teachers overly focus on one detail of a student’s background – hometown, neighborhood and zip code, academic history, personal background, family characteristics (e.g., income, education, structure). The Halo Effect is when one focuses on one positive detail. The Horn Effect is when one focuses on one negative detail.

Anti-bias and anti-deficit training. Given the above, it ought to be clear that anti-bias training is essential to undo race-based deficit thinking. Formal training in higher education and professional development in P-12 settings is necessary.

Cultural competence training. A fundamental and foundational component of anti-racist and anti-bias training is cultural competence training that focuses on: (a) definitions and characteristics of culture; (b) theories and frameworks of culture; (c) racial and cultural dispositions, knowledge, and skills, as we addressed in this and other publications.

Summary and Conclusions

Racial Battle Fatigue. It is emotionally exhausting to read another study which found — again — that Black boys are found guilty just for being Black and male, regardless of age. We believe that adultification is operating with Black boys, including Kazaam. He, like far too many Black boys, is viewed as older and less innocent than whites; moreover, they are dehumanized. All of this is another clarion call for administrators to stop the inequitable disciplining of Black boys. This means looking for patterns from teachers’ disciplinary practices by students’ race and gender. We know that Black students are disciplined more than all racial and ethnic groups. We also know that Black boys are the most targeted —  intentionally and unintentionally; consciously and unconsciously. Explicit and implicit biases from teachers result in policing these students, along with adultification.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University.

Dr. Erik M. Hines is a professor in the Division of Child, Family, and Community Engagement at George Mason University.

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