ANN ARBOR--Elementary school discipline policies that rely on expulsions or suspensions as punishment may be fostering childhood inequality, a new study shows.
These policies are not rare but can unfairly impact African-American children, says University of Michigan researcher Garrett Pace, who along with colleagues at the University of Maryland and Pennsylvania State University collaborated on the study.
The higher rate of black children suspended or expelled from school appears largely due to differences in their school characteristics rather than to differences in behavior problems, the researchers say.
"More disadvantaged schools should be provided resources and training to use more inclusive disciplinary practices," said Pace, a U-M sociology and social work doctoral student.
Previous research has documented racial disparities for discipline in middle and high school but few studies focus on the risk in elementary schools nationwide.
Many factors contribute to a child having problems in school--ranging from family instability to teacher biases--that place them at risk for suspensions and expulsions, Pace says.
The researchers used child and parent reports from the Fragile Families Study, which tracked nearly 5,000 children born in hospitals between 1998 and 2000 in 20 large cities. Parents were interviewed after the child's birth, and follow-ups were conducted at ages 1, 3, 5 and 9. Their final sample involved nearly 2,500 kids.
About one in 10 children were suspended or expelled by age 9.
Racial disparities remained high. About 40 percent of African-American boys were suspended or expelled, compared to 8 percent of white boys or from other ethnic groups. These disparities are largely due to differences in the children's school and family characteristics rather than to behavior problems.
In addition, children who were suspended or expelled displayed more aggressive behavior, like fighting, after they were disciplined than they did before their suspension or expulsion.
The study was not able to identify the cause of this increased aggression but it is possible it arises in response to negative emotions, which may become amplified if the discipline causes the student to fall behind in school or introduces stress at home because the parents' work schedules are disrupted.
The researchers also say that there are situations when exclusionary punishment may be necessary.
"However, in our opinion, schools should be provided resources and training to implement more inclusive alternatives," Pace said.
The study did not explore the role parents play in promoting their children's good school behavior.
The study's lead author is Wade Jacobsen, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland. Nayan Ramirez, a recent doctoral graduate at Penn State University, also contributed to the study, which appears as an advance article in Social Forces.