Empty Seats: Addressing the Problem of Unfair School Discipline For Boys of Color

Discipline in schools, when appropriately used, can help to create structure and establish rules for a well-functioning classroom and school. All students should feel safe, and have a positive environment in which to learn. The underlying empirical data show that the harsh discipline policies that have proliferated for the last 30 years, such as out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, school-based arrests, and transfers to alternative education settings, have had the opposite result. These policies have been unevenly applied to boys of color. The educational experience for boys of color is weakened by these unfair discipline polices that impact them more heavily than their white peers. They find themselves outside of the school doors instead of in the classroom learning, and this loss of precious classroom time difficult, if not impossible, to make up.

As a result, schools are failing to accomplish their primary goal: to provide a quality education to all students – including boys of color – that prepares them for the future. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who sees these disparities as the civil rights issue of this generation, stated that, “[t]he undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise.

Disparate treatment of students in school has consequences for students’ lifelong outcomes. As education leaders and school systems acknowledge and come to terms with the racial disparities that affect how boys of color are treated in school, there must be a plan to reverse these differences systemically to assure that boys of color receive the same high-quality educational opportunities as their peers. This presents an opportunity to adopt more developmentally appropriate, commonsense discipline policies and practices that are appropriate for adolescents’ developmental stage and can help to close this education divide.

“Empty Seats,” written by Rhonda Bryant, provides historical context for school discipline policies, explains how they funnel young people into the justice systems, provides data showing inequitable enforcement against students of color, and provides productive alternative discipline strategies.