Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology of Education program at New York University (NYU). She was a graduate assistant at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at NYU under the leadership of Dr. Pedro Noguera. She now works at the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality in Special Education at the center. Before joining the Metro center, she worked for the AmeriCorps Vista project in Phoenix, Arizona, coordinating and developing ESL programs for recent immigrant parents in the Phoenix school system. She holds a BA in economics and is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She also holds a MST in Special Education from Pace University in New York City and taught middle school special education for several years in Washington Heights NYC. Her research interests are centered on the intersection between the impact of federal disability legislation and the persistence of racial and ethnic disproportionality. More specifically she is interested in understanding the complexities associated with a policy’s origins, its intent and mediation in practice as it responds to local context, especially when a disparate impact is identified.
It was a typical school day in my research and I was observing an in school suspension room when an African American boy, about seventeen years old, entered and immediately sat at a desk and began writing. The teacher in the room appeared to know him well and asked him what he was working on. The boy said he was writing about what he would say if he became valedictorian. The teacher, seemingly intrigued, asked him to explain his thoughts. “I want to go to college. I mean I only have three options: college, jail or the army. It’s true, you can ask anyone. These are our only options. You would be surprised by how many kids would say the same. This school is nasty like that.”
Upon closer inspection of the student’s assignment the teacher realized he was working on an essay for the online credit recovery program designed for suspended students. With the realization the teacher said, “You better get that work done because people are calling the online program a criminal program!” The boy quickly responded with, “I’m not a criminal.” The teacher continued, “Well, people think the program is harboring criminals.” “I ain’t no criminal!” the boy interrupted. He then returned to his assignment visibly distraught.
Why did he only see three options for himself and his peers: college, jail or the army? And why was he defending himself against the perception that he was a potential criminal? More broadly, what messages are we intentionally or unintentionally telling students about their worth in school and how do these messages intersect with school discipline structures?
Moments like the one described, unfortunately can be all too common in our schools. Other researchers have observed similar interactions and have highlighted how our expectations and actions can alienate students from the educative process.[i]
While assuring the safety of our students is of utmost importance, the use of school suspensions has adversely impacted the educational trajectories of many of America’s youth. Decades of research have shown that Black students are the most likely group to be suspended, their suspension rates have been steadily increasing in the past 20 years, and that Latino and American Indian students are also overrepresented in school disciplinary data[ii]. Additionally, research shows that 1 in 5 Black students regularly face suspensions as compared to 1 in 10 White or Asian Pacific Islander students[iii].
The disparities in discipline have real consequences on student’s lives. For example, the New York City Department of Education was recently critiqued for its overuse of suspensions and their negative effect on various student subgroups and their educational trajectories[iv]. In Los Angeles the rate of school suspensions has become so problematic that the district has ordered practitioners to stop using the most commonly employed cause for suspension, “willful defiance,” which is subjectively defined, in efforts to reduce the rate[v] and its disparate impact on mostly non white students and students with disabilities.
These reports are nothing new though, especially for students with disabilities. Racial and ethnic disproportionality in special education and discipline is a pervasive and problematic educational and social issue that has persisted for decades[vi]. Nationally, one of the most consistent trends is that Black and Latino males are overrepresented in the high incidence[vii] disability categories and in school suspensions[viii].
Research suggests that the disproportionate number of Black and Latino males classified in special education may be related to their over representation in the criminal justice system, and may contribute to what is commonly referred to as the school to prison pipeline[ix]. Most alarming, students classified with the high incidence disability categories are four times more likely to enter the correctional system than their non-classified peers[x].
Given the facts, how can we let moments like the one described persist unaddressed in schools across America? We send our children to school to learn about and engage with the limitless possibilities of the world, but we only allow some students to dream big.
As practitioners, researchers, parents, and concerned citizens we should be asking ourselves: How do we ensure that our children are safe while also ensuring that all students remain engaged in the educative process? How can we critically engage with the reality of disparate outcomes, the reliance on school suspensions and our desire to provide the best education possible for America’s children? No child should have to defend themselves saying “I’m not a criminal” while sitting in a school desk. Let’s stop uncritically using suspensions and start allowing all students to freely participate in a limitless future.
The following, non exhaustive, list of resources are suggested to facilitate conversations about the complex intersections between practice, discipline, race, ability and disparate outcomes:
Delpit, L. D. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34159-165.
Noguera, P. A. (2003). Schools, Prisons, and Social Implications of Punishment: Rethinking Disciplinary Practices. Theory Into Practice, 42(4), 341-350.
Pollock,M. (2008). Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School. The New Press, New York
Skiba, R. J. (2002). Special education and school discipline: A precarious balance. Behavioral Disorders, 27(2), 81-97.
[i] Ferguson, A.A. Bad boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
[ii] Wallace, J. M., Jr., Goodkind, S. Wallace, C.M., & Bachman, J. G. (2008). Racial, ethnic and gender differences in school discipline among U.S high school students: 1991-2005. Negro Educational Review, 59, 47-62.
[iii] KewelRamani, A., Gilberston, L., Fox, M., & Provasnik, S. (2007). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic minorities (NCES 2007-039). Washington D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved August 15th, 2013 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007039.pdf
[vi] Skiba, R. J., Simmons, A. D., Ritter, S., Gibb, A., Rausch, M. K., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. G. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: History, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children Vol. 74, No. 3, 264-288.
[vii] The high incidence disability categories are emotional disturbance (ED), learning disability (LD or SLD), mental retardation or intellectual disabilities (MR or ID), other health impairments (OHI), and speech/language impairments (SLI).
[viii] Office of Special Education Programs, U. S Department of Education, 2007 Report
[ix] Kim, C. Y, Losen, D. J., and Dewitt, D. T. The school-to-prison pipeline: Structuring legal reform. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
[x] Rutherford, R., Bullis, M., Anderson, C., and Griller-Clark, H. Youth with Disabilities in the Corrections System: Prevalence Rates and Identification Rates. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research, 2002.