Despite high levels of racial bias in K-12 education, researchers found a surprising lack of it in colleges and universities.
Two N.C. State University researchers — Matthew Starcke, a graduate research assistant, and Stephen Porter, an education professor — set out to study whether racial bias exists in discipline in schools by using an experimental study based on survey responses.
They asked student administrators how they would punish students found in possession of marijuana. Though administrators did not know the study focused on race, the questions used names that "were evocative of particular racial identities," according to the study.
Once it was revealed to the subjects that the focus of the study was on racial bias in higher education, respondents were given the chance to withdraw their answers, though few of them did.
Porter and Starcke found administrators would give out harsher penalties based on the amount marijuana the students were caught with, not based on their race.
“We were surprised by the findings,” Starcke said.
A possible reason for this could be based on the additional training student affairs officials in higher education get to maintain integrity and equity, according to the study.
Starcke said he and Porter chose to study racial bias in university discipline because he became familiar with stories on student discipline in K-12 education.
A separate study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in March 2014 found what appeared to be racially skewed trends in grades as low as preschool.
The studies in the Civil Rights Data collection looked at bias in a variety of fields including suspensions for handicapped students, suspensions for girls of color and restraint and seclusion by disability and race — all found disparities.
“The two most common reasons students are suspended from public schools are for having weapons on campus and drug possession,” said June Atkinson, superintendent of North Carolina Public Schools.
Although suspensions in public schools have been cut in half in the last five years, there is still room for improvement, she said.
Race and education has been a focus in recent news coverage — which Vanessa Jeter, spokesperson for North Carolina Public Schools, said could have led Starcke and Porter to examine the trend in higher education.
“I started to wonder if similar patterns would be observed if we looked at college discipline,” Starcke said.
And according to the study, there was an overall lack of national data that might indicate whether minority students are treated fairly and equally in university disciplinary processes.
University administrator have more flexibility when disciplining students for things like drug possession, while there is a strict protocol for K-12 students, Atkinson said.
“The General Assembly's legislation is very prescriptive in which offenses require disciplinary action in K-12, but that is not true at the postsecondary level,” she said.
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