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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: The discipline and achievement gaps that harm students of color

DTH Photo Illustration. Minority students face harsher and more frequent disciplinary action in primary education, leading to long-term affects on academic discipline and careers.

Students from marginalized backgrounds have historically been discriminated against in public schools, especially those in Orange County. Both K-12 educators and administrators are not immune to implicit biases, and systemic racism continues to persist in these educational institutions.

Minority students often feel the effects of harsher discipline in schools, which can both affect their academic performance and career trajectories. A combination of policing in schools and implicit biases create hostile learning environments for students of color.

Firstly — and most significantly — minority students are far too often subjected to exclusionary methods of discipline, including suspensions and expulsions. 

For instance, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, with Black students three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled in particular, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. 

Additionally, around 70 percent of students arrested or referred to law enforcement for disciplinary problems are Black or Latinx. 

Trends such as these are no mere coincidence, nor do they represent any inherent differences between white and nonwhite students. Simply put, there are systemic racism in action — in places that are supposed to emphasize growth and development equally for all students. And continuing to ignore this trend is a severe injustice to students of color, both in Orange County and across the nation.

When students are subjected to exclusionary methods of discipline, their academic lives and performances suffer. The disproportionate rates of harsher discipline for Black students over their white counterparts, especially in the form of suspensions, can also be linked to performance on standardized tests, per a study led by Stanford University. 

The study found that a 10 percentage point increase in the Black-white discipline gap in a school district could predict a gap that is 17 percent larger than the average Black-white achievement gap. These parallels are difficult to ignore.

This issue is especially severe in North Carolina, where Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has the second-largest achievement gap between Black and white students in the nation, according to the Stanford University Center for Education Policy Analysis. 

We shouldn't think of these issues of systemic racism as too big of an issue to grapple with, or something that is too far removed from a progressive college town. The consequences of unjust disciplinary action are manifesting right in front of us. It's imperative that we pay attention.

So what's being done, and how can we do better?

Understanding systemic racism

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd last year, the pervasive nature of institutional racism was called into light by the Black Lives Matter Movement — notably its intersection with education.

Advocates for the issue began calling on school districts to create more equitable policies for students of color, from decreasing the achievement gap to eliminating disciplinary policies that disproportionately harm students of color. 

It's incredibly important for this thinking to be applied to CHCCS, where Black students have historically seen fewer academic opportunities and faced harsher disciplinary action. Our understanding of systemic racism cannot exclude our own schools: it's imperative to understand racial injustice in all the ways it manifests.

Abolish law enforcement in K-12 schools

When policing and education intersect, marginalized students suffer.

Across the nation, students are being referred to law enforcement for behavior that would normally be handled by a school administrator, according to Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute — a research and policy organization that focuses on juvenile and criminal justice issues.

According to a 2020 Justice Policy Institute report, more than 250,000 students were charged with misdemeanors in 2010 by school resource officers for behaviors that those in schools would typically handle. 

By delegating discipline to counselors or administrators, schools can foster better relationships between students and authority without entrapping students of color into the criminal justice system from an early age. School resource officers have no place in administering disciplinary policies.

At a Board of Education meeting this month discussed the future of school resource officers in Chapel Hill and Carrboro Schools, as monitored by the School Safety Task Force. In June, the district will use their finding to make a decision about whether or not law enforcement should continue to play a role in our local schools.

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Expand DEI efforts

As more studies examine the achievement gaps created by disproportionate discipline administration, districts have begun taking steps in the right direction. 

Some districts have begun implementing implicit bias and diversity training and others have created ethnic studies programs and incorporated culturally relevant teaching to counteract the consequences harsher discipline has had on minority students. 

Here in Orange County, Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations, said CHCCS is working toward creating a plan to address the rampant inequities in the district, as well as conducting an equity audit.

If our community and educational leaders dedicate their time and attention to the issue of systemic racism in schools, we can lessen the unjust gaps in discipline and achievement for students of color, as well as preserve their well-being.