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Black Students Disproportionately Suspended In North Carolina

Shaun Harper
University of Pennsylvania

A new report reveals that across the South, school districts are disproportionately suspending and expelling black students.

The study out of the University of Pennsylvania shows that while black students represented about a quarter of students in the thirteen southern states in the 2011-2012 school year, they made up nearly half of the students suspended.

“In looking at the national statistics on black student suspensions, we noticed that 1.2 million black students were suspended from public schools nationally,” study author Shaun Harper told WUNC’s The State of Things’ Frank Stasio. “That in and of itself is a bit of a crisis, but when we got further into our analysis, we discovered that 55 percent of those suspensions occurred in just thirteen states, and they were in the South,” he said.


The report comes months after the board of Wake County Public Schools presented a planto reduce suspensions, as President Obama encourages schools to adjust zero tolerance discipline policies.

North Carolina was one of the thirteen states Harper and his co-author Edward Smith studied. In the Tarheel state, black students comprised 26 percent of the student population, but were 51 percent of students who were suspended.

Harper and Smith compared the percentage of suspended students who were black to the black student enrollment in each school district in the South. Harper says ideally, the racial makeup of suspended students should reflect the demographics of the overall student population.


“We’ve been really pushing against the narrative:‘Well black children are genetically terrible people,’ or ‘their parents are so lousy,’ or ‘they don’t have any fathers in their homes,’” Harper said. “We completely acknowledge that [problems at home] may in fact be affecting the behavioral issues we see among black children in schools. But they’re not the only explanatory factors.”


Across the state and the South as a whole, black students are suspended at about two times the rate of their enrollment. In many districts in North Carolina, that disproportion was much higher. The report singled out Elkin City Schools for suspending black students at 6.3 times the rate of their enrollment. Roxboro Community School, a charter school in Person County, suspended black students at 8.2 times their representation in the student population.. Harper says that means in many districts, black students are disproportionately barred from the classroom.

"...that kind of disproportionality in schools at least in part helps explain the overrepresentation of blacks in jails and prisons."

“If one is out of school for three days or five days, that student is falling behind her or his peers, who are learning who are preparing for statewide exams and other kinds of things that are giving them an academically competitive advantage,” Harper said.

Harper says disproportionate suspensions could help explain lower educational outcomes in the black population, since black students are more likely to be kicked out of class. But Harper notes the effects of suspension go beyond academics.

“These school discipline policies and practices very much contribute to and help sustain the school-to-prison pipeline,” Harper said. “The research is very clear that students who are suspended and definitely those who are expelled from school end up going to prison at statistically significant higher rates than do students who do not encounter school discipline. So that kind of disproportionality in schools at least in part helps explain the overrepresentation of blacks in jails and prisons.”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools suspended black students at a rate 4.3 times their enrollment, according to the study. But the district’s director of equity Sheldon Lanier, says the district has made improvements since the data was collected.

“We do have various types of equity training around, not only students of color, but around students who may have a different sexual orientation that a teacher may not be comfortable with, and so they may end up [...] targeting that student more so than others,” Lanier explained.

"Schools of education [...] they are only preparing teachers to teach at one level, and that's basically to a white male that comes from a middle-class household, [with] two parents—male-female—and is protestant Christian."

Lanier says the district provides training to teachers on racial bias awareness and culturally responsive teaching several times a year. In addition, the district has made changes and clarifications in its code of conduct meant to help teachers make more objective and thoughtful decisions about discipline.

“One of the main things is defiance, and how you would really define defiance or non-compliance or disrespect,” Lanier said. “Those are going to be ones that are always kind of a gray [we are] really trying to hone in on that.”

New data provided by the district shows that out-of-school suspensions for black students dropped 38 percent between 2012 and 2014. However, the district still suspended black students at a rate 3.4 times their enrollment in the 2013-2014 school year.

“There’s always going to be room for growth,” Lanier said. “And the students are always going to be the first ones to tell us where our strengths are and where our weaknesses are.”


Research shows implicit racial biases held by teachers and administrators make them more likely to suspend or expel black students than students of other races.

“Black students tend to be disproportionately disciplined for things like dress code violations, or ‘the kid was giving me an attitude,’ which is completely subjective,” Harper explained. “Whereas as white kids in public schools tend to be referred most often to principals’ offices for property destruction or smoking—things that are far less subjective.”

It’s for that reason, Lanier says, that training teachers to be culturally responsive and sensitive is an important part of professional development. Lanier believes that development should begin before a teacher even sets foot in his or her own classroom.

“Schools of education [...] they are only preparing teachers to teach at one level, and that’s basically to a white male that comes from a middle-class household, [with] two parents—male-female—and is protestant Christian,” Lanier said. “When teachers come out of that school of education and they come into a public school, then anything outside of that is foreign to them. [...] That’s one of the main things that plays into those implicit biases.”

Harper and Smith had some recommendations of their own, including: doing away with zero tolerance discipline policies in schools, providing alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and invest in professional development of teachers. Harper said he wants this research to help teachers think through the harmful and problematic ways they have been socialized to think about black children before going into the classroom.

“We are not certain at all that there is enough conversation being had at district level and within individual school buildings about the reality of these disparities in discipline,” Harper said.. 

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.