Black middle school students are significantly less likely than their white peers to receive verbal or written warnings from their teachers regarding behavioral misconduct, according to a new University of Illinois study of racial and ethnic disparities in school discipline.
“While at first glance, disparities in teacher warnings seem less concerning than being expelled or sent to the principal’s office, warnings represent opportunities for students to correct their behavior before the consequences escalate and they’re removed from the learning environment,” said study leader Kate M. Wegmann, a social work professor at the University of Illinois.
Wegmann and her co-author, graduate student Brittanni Smith, looked at the data of more than 4,100 sixth- through ninth-graders from 17 North Carolina schools.
Students were asked about the various types of misconduct they had engaged in at school over the previous 30 days — including tardiness, turning in homework late, arguing with teachers and physical fights with other students — and how often these occurred.
Student participants were also asked about the types of discipline they received, including verbal warnings from their teachers, written warnings sent to their homes or phone calls to their parents. They also reported on exclusionary forms of discipline they may have experienced, such as being sent to the principal’s office and school suspensions.
Although the study revealed, as hypothesized, that black students were more likely than their white peers to experience exclusionary forms of discipline, the researchers were surprised to find that the most significant differences were in black students’ likelihood of receiving written or verbal warnings.
Specifically, although black students composed only 23% of the study population, these students accounted for 37% of the school suspensions and more than 35% of the office referrals.
Likewise, around half of those students who reported three or more suspensions or who had at least three warnings sent or called to their homes were black, according to the study.
The researchers also found that, regardless of the number or frequency of their infractions, black students were less likely than their white peers to be warned about their behaviors in the classroom or in messages to their parents.
Even among those students who reported three or more incidents of misbehavior, black males were less likely than white males to be warned by their teachers about misconduct.
Overall, black males were 95% less likely than white males to receive verbal warnings directly from teachers, and black students of either sex were 84% less likely to have multiple warnings directed to their parents.
Black males were more likely than all other students to have been suspended from school three or more times, according to the study.
“These findings point toward a trend of heightened consequences with little or no forewarning for black male students, even when behavioral infractions are accounted for,” the researchers wrote.
Although black females were not more likely to be suspended than white females, they were more likely to be warned verbally or in writing and to be sent to the principal’s office for similar types and frequency of misbehavior.
The findings are published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review.