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Yale study shows Black boys are more likely to be disciplined than their white classmates

In this Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 photo Hunter Waslicki, left, and Julian Barnes, rightt, log onto Twitter for a classroom exercise at Wauwatosa West High School in Wauwatosa, Wis. While many school officials frown upon the use of social media in the classroom, an increasing number of teachers see Twitter as a way to expand a classroom discussion to include diverse viewpoints from students around the country. (AP Photo/Dinesh Ramde)
Dinesh Ramde
Hunter Waslicki, left, and Julian Barnes, right, log onto Twitter for a classroom exercise.

A Yale study shows Black boys are more likely to be punished than their white classmates for the same behavior.

WSHU’s Molly Ingram spoke with the study’s author Jayanti Owens, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, about her research that shows Black boys are more likely to be punished for acting out at school compared to their white classmates.

WSHU: Your study found that Black boys are more likely to get in trouble than their white peers for the same behavior. Tell me about your research process. How did you find that out?

JO: So the way that I went about doing the study was to think about how it is that teachers perceive routine misbehavior. So nothing really extreme, but things like defiance or non compliance, disrespect, things that fall into that sort of category of routine behavioral infractions. And we used videos to capture students of different racial ethnic backgrounds, committing the same routine misbehavior in classroom settings. And so we showed these video clips of students and they were situated in normal classrooms, so they had about 25 peers around them. And they were all taking class tests at the time. We captured these video clips, and we showed them to teachers around the country. And we basically asked the teachers who were randomly assigned to see a video of either a Black, Latino or white student, to describe in text what they saw. And we asked them to tell us whether they would refer the student to the principal's office or not, and to tell us a bit about themselves and their schools they actually teach in.

In doing so, we found there was the sort of double jeopardy faced by Black and Latino boys. And in particular for Black boys. What we found is that Black boys are perceived as being more blameworthy for identical misbehavior as white boys. And they're more likely to be referred to the principal's office, even if they have that same perception of blameworthiness. So for Black and white boys that are also perceived as being equally blameworthy, Black boys are still more likely to be sent to the principal's office.

Then we found this other component, which is the sort of double jeopardy part, which is that even for Black and Latino students in schools that are sort of composed with larger proportions of Black and minority classmates, that students of all racial ethnic backgrounds are perceived as being more blameworthy than their counterparts who attend predominantly white schools. So essentially, there's something about the climate of schools that are attended by Black and Latino boys, that leads to students of all racial ethnic backgrounds in those contexts being perceived as more blameworthy than their counterparts in white schools.

WSHU: In your study, you provided some possible explanations. What were they?

JO: Yeah, so one of the biggest explanations is that of racial and ethnic bias, essentially, on the part of teachers. What we're doing is showing the exact same behavior and the exact same classroom context and finding that Black boys are perceived as being more blameworthy for that exact same behavior.

So one possible explanation is that there is racial bias on the part of teachers. We also find that because Black boys are more likely to be referred to the principal's office, even when they are perceived as being similarly blameworthy that there might also be other mechanisms at play. So it could be things like differences in teachers expectations about the likelihood that parents will intervene in the classroom. So if the student is referred to the principal's office, and they’re Black, teachers might perceive that parents are less likely to sort of step in and say, 'hey, what's going on?' than if the boy is white.

There could also be other things going on as in, teachers might anticipate less pushback from administrators when they refer a Black student as opposed to a white student. So it may be that they're more likely to refer the Black student because they believe that they're not going to get sort of called out in the same way as if the student was white.

There could be other mechanisms of bias that don't operate specifically through blameworthiness perception, but other forms of bias could be that there's just a greater sort of expectation of misbehavior on the part of teachers when it's a Black boy as opposed to a white boy.

WSHU: What kind of impact do you find that this has on learning?

JO: So in this particular study, I don't look at the impact on learning directly. But in other work that I've done, and in other work that's been done by other scholars in this area, there's a very clear finding that suspension and other forms of discipline are linked to lower achievement.

One of the direct mechanisms is simply less time in the classroom learning environments. So most often when students are referred to the principal's office, they're taken out of that classroom learning environment, either for a relatively short period, while they're in the principal's office, waiting to speak to the principal or one of the staff members. But if they get a suspension, or an expulsion even more so, they're removed from the classroom learning environment for many days at a time. This has direct effects on lowered achievement simply because of less instructional time.

WSHU: How do you think that schools should be addressing this issue?

JO: So when it comes to how schools address this issue, there's a number of different factors at play. So there's no sort of blanket solution, in my opinion. There’s not a simple sort of thing for all schools and districts to adopt. But rather, it's more nuanced.

It depends a lot on the mechanisms that are at play for that specific school or district. So it could be that in a district, where blameworthiness is a major sort of process, driving the differences in referral, by race, and ethnicity, it may be that there's a need for reforming the way that the discipline process operates at the school. So it may be about saying that there's a need for further inquiry when it's a Black student that is referred to the principal's office, a desire and a need to follow up more with community members and parents to understand sort of the processes that are going on within the student's life that are leading to the ways in which students are acting out.

But really, there's also a need to reform the way that teachers are thinking about the behaviors of Black and Latino students with a recognition that there is this greater disproportionality that results from perceptions of blameworthiness that target Black and Latino students.

So even though they're sort of behaving in the exact same way, they are, nonetheless, being referred more readily to the principal's office. And that process of bias and discrimination and also sort of inclinations to perceive or expect misbehavior on the part of Black and Latino students, is a big part of the process driving the disproportionate referrals.

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.