A report released in January 2016 by the Brookings Institution concluded that African-American children are being disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment and suspensions in American schools, often but not exclusively in the South. These findings are based on data from the 2011-2012 school year supplied by school systems to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
According to the report, black children in Arkansas and Louisiana are 40 percent more likely to be spanked than white students. In Mississippi, it’s 70 percent more likely they will be. In North Carolina and Georgia, they are twice as likely to be subjected to corporal punishment.
The report pointed out that black students are more likely to live in states that rely on corporal punishment. But this doesn’t explain why they are subjected disproportionately to it. A 2008 study about corporal punishment by Human Rights Watch quoted several individuals who shared their thoughts about race and school discipline.
“I’ve heard this said at my school and at other schools: “This child should get less whips, it’ll leave marks,” said an unnamed black teacher in a rural Mississippi school. “Students that are dark-skinned, it takes more to let their skin be bruised. Even with all black students, there is an imbalance: darker-skinned students get worse punishment.”
The HRW study also quoted the guardian of a black male, who said that corporal punishment would prepare his son for the discrimination he would face as an adult.
“For young black males, if you can’t listen to authority, you’re headed to jail,” the unnamed guardian said. “Discipline needs to come from people they love to prevent that.”
While northern states don’t utilize corporal punishment as much as southern ones do, black students above the Mason-Dixon line still endure it disproportionately. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, for example, black students are spanked in school at nearly twice the rate as white ones. In Maine, they are eight times as likely to be paddled in school. The likelihood that black children will be subjected to corporal punishment in Colorado, Ohio and California is at least 70 percent higher than it is for whites.
The news is no better regarding suspensions and expulsions. Brookings found that black students are given out-of-school suspensions nearly 4 times as often as white students are. They also are given in-school suspensions at nearly twice the rate of whites.
A 2015 University of Pennsylvania study points to the same disproportionate impact on black students across the nation. Its authors found that in 132 Southern school districts, they were suspended at least five times as often as whites, based on their percentage of the populations in those districts.
The study also found that blacks were the only students suspended in 84 districts; in 346 districts, 75 percent of the students suspended were black; in 743 districts, 50 percent were black.
As to expulsions, the Pennsylvania study found that black students were kicked out of school at least 5 times the rate of their percentage of the student population in 77 school districts in the South. In 181 public school districts, they were the only students expelled. Blacks comprised at least 75 percent of the students expelled in 255 districts; in 484, they were at least 50 percent of those expelled.
The story of Mikia Hutchings is a striking example of how disparate the impact of school discipline can be across racial lines. According to the New York Times, Mikia was a 12-year-old at Dutchtown Middle School in 2013 when she and a white friend got in trouble for putting graffiti on a gym bathroom’s walls.
Mikia lived with her grandmother, who was not able to pay the $100 required for restitution. The white child’s family was able to pay it and after a few days of suspension, she returned to school and the matter was closed, according to the New York Times.
However, things were far from over for Mikia. She was subject to a disciplinary hearing and later, Mikia was charged with criminal trespassing. As part of a plea deal, Mikia admitted to the trespassing charge, was placed on probation for the summer and put on a 7 p.m. curfew. She also had to apologize in writing to a student whose property was damaged by the graffiti and complete 16 hours of community service.
“What kid needs to be having a conversation with a lawyer about the right to remain silent?” asked Michael J. Tafelski, the attorney with the Georgia Legal Services Program who represented Mikia. “White kids don’t have those conversations; black kids do.”