The lingering inequality of school discipline in North Carolina

The lingering inequality of school discipline in North Carolina

And why very few people, much less policymakers, seem to actually care

- in Education, Top Story
Mark Robinson addressing the Guilford County Board of Education in November. (Image: GCS)

Mark Robinson ostensibly addressed the Guilford County Board of Education, but the broad, barrel-chested man spent most of his two-minute speech in November booming at the audience instead.

“Folks who sit in offices in high places and look down low at the rest of us have no business making these decisions!” he bellowed in an angry baritone. “And giving them that power skirts on making this school system into a dictatorship!”

One might have presumed, given the rhetoric, that the Greensboro area school board proposed to do away with lunch or teachers or textbooks. But members were gathered last month to amend the disciplinary code to provide a first-of-its-kind, at least in North Carolina, appeals process for students given short-term suspension.

That the proposal — an extraordinarily modest extension of due process — is polarizing borders on ludicrous. Long-term suspensions and expulsions already include some method of appeal, but not short-term suspensions, most of which are dished out for minor infractions like insubordination or disrespecting a teacher.

Superintendent Sharon Contreras

The proposal, pushed by Guilford’s forward-thinking superintendent, Sharon Contreras, allows families to take their claims to the school’s principal and, if that doesn’t settle things, to the superintendent.

But the policy has conservatives like Robinson volcanically angry because they believe — down to their molten core — that any retreat on school discipline is a full retreat, the first harbinger of classroom anarchy, the Book of Revelations made manifest in a school building. 

“This proposal is a direct slap in the face of the teachers and principals who work with our children on a daily basis,” read one written comment to the board. “This superintendent and current board are intent on dismantling any discipline in our school system.”

Robinson starts at a 10 and has nowhere to go from there. He is a MAGA-hat Moses down from the mountaintop, come to find the huddled masses capering with false idols.

“We need to keep the power to run our schools in the hands of the principals and teachers that deal with these students on a day-to-day basis,” he exclaims.

Robinson’s boiling delivery is on brand. He crested to viral fame in April 2018 ranting about gun rights at a Greensboro City Council meeting. And this year, he parlayed his “Joe the Plumber, but much much angrier” act into an underdog bid for lieutenant governor.  

Onlookers, in adherence to board rules, show their approval by waving silently. The better the point, the more frantic the waving. Robinson has them gesticulating like kindergartners desperately seeking permission for a potty break.

“It’s got nothing to do with Black and white!” he shouts, jabbing a finger into the air. “It’s got something to do with right and wrong!”


B ecause there is a tendency to confuse volume with veracity, there is something compelling about Robinson’s diatribe.

And because Robinson is a Black man who scoffs at the idea that race plays any role in these aggrieved proceedings, he is an especially welcome voice for anyone who’s eager to hear that the problem is, after all, not the system.

Black students accounted for more than 55 percent of all out-of-school suspensions (OSS), but made up only a quarter of the student population. (Image: Adobe Stock)

But of course this has to do with race.

Regardless of what Robinson and the tough talkers say, if we have been able to count on anything in this mercurial world, it is the assurance that Black students in American school systems are punished more frequently and severely than their white counterparts.

Guilford’s policy is a modest acknowledgement that something is horribly askew about school discipline in the United States, and it has been since before many of these school board members were born.

I have not even begun to state an opinion.

This is the sort of perennial, data-backed profundity that arrives every year, just as punctual as the European rails. It is, criminally, fodder for a hastily-written, hastily-discarded news report, but rarely the subject of any broad policy reforms in this state.

As North Carolina’s Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) wrote in a deeply-sourced report this summer: “Decades of research has found that students of color are disciplined more often and more harshly than their White counterparts, often for the same infractions, even after controlling for other relevant factors, such as (mis)behavior rates and socioeconomic status.”

The CREED report found that, in the 2016-2017 academic year (the most recent available data), Black students accounted for more than 55 percent of all out-of-school suspensions (OSS) and 46 percent of in-school suspensions (ISS), but made up only a quarter of the student population. 

“To give a sense of the magnitude of the racial discipline gap in the state,” the report continued, “if Black students had been given OSS at least once at the state average rate, almost 30,000 fewer Black students would have experienced OSS during the 2016-2017 school year. The average length of OSS for Black students was 1.94 days. Thus, those 30,000 fewer suspensions translate into approximately 58,000 fewer days suspended out of school for Black students.”

Beware of anyone who means to suggest, either implicitly or explicitly, that Black students are more likely to misbehave than their white peers, because bigotry, as always, boasts of an extraordinarily limited bibliography. Such a perception has been disproved time after time. 

Source: Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED)

Such figures don’t purport to prove a causal relationship between race and punishment, but past studies — such as last year’s report at N.C. State University — indicated that prospective educators assess student behavior differently based on race.

“Black students experience more suspensions, expulsions and disciplinary actions than White students, even for exactly the same behavior, and the data suggest that this disparity may be influenced by a cultural disconnect between teachers and Black students,” Amy Halberstadt, a professor of psychology and the paper’s lead author commented at the time.

The chasm in K-12 punishment widens when students commit “subjective” offenses like talking back to a teacher or disrespecting a teacher. In other words, Black students are suspended for offenses that might earn a warning for a white student.

One cannot conceive of the consequences, the apocalyptic reverberations, that would accompany any equivalent finding for white students. Indeed, this commentary would have been written several decades ago, about the time suspensions spiked in the U.S. There would have been a presidential task force, and the crisis at its center attacked with all due ferocity. 

But to hear some, like the conservative K-12 pundit Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation, talk about North Carolina’s imminent racial disparities, you might think the problem is purely theoretical.

“I don’t think there’s compelling evidence that teachers and administrators are acting out of racist motives or to punish students disproportionately,” Stoops soliloquized in January to the Tribune News Service. “I think it’s best to err on the side of trusting teachers and administrators who are in schools every day.”

Even an apparently mild-mannered sentiment like this can be pernicious if it requires of us that we treat plainly injurious facts as a hypothesis. 

In this case, Stoops downplayed a report from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s Youth Justice Project plunging into the racial disparities yet again. Indeed, the project found most of North Carolina’s 115 school districts were several times more likely to dish out short-term suspensions to Black students. It’s staggeringly worse in some districts, including those with purportedly progressive local school boards. Black students are 14 times more likely to be suspended in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools; and nearly 10 times more likely in Durham Public Schools.

If the tragedy stopped there, it would be enough. But K-12 research denotes a positive correlation between suspended students and students who drop out, particularly when it involves students suspended in their graduation year. There is also a connection between suspended students and students who later come into contact with the criminal justice system, feeding a carnivorous “school-to-prison pipeline.”

It is not about making villains of our educators, a group that’s so often overworked, over-stressed, under-represented and underpaid. It is about recognizing that everyone is fallible, and the administration of school discipline should be viewed through the appropriate lens.

Peggy Nicholson of the Youth Justice Project described her group’s 2019 reporting as a “call to action.” Of course, if papers translated directly to action, we’d have resolved these fundamental injustices decades ago, so often has this story been written.

Sometimes, it seems, we would rather wring our hands than ball our fists.

If you cannot find compelling evidence in the reams of published research, it is because you are not looking. Oftentimes people ask the wrong questions because they desire the wrong answers. 

There is, to borrow an old cliche, an elephant in the room. But, rather than discussing how to remove the elephant, some would rather spend days, months, years and even decades deciding whether we’re viewing some other 13,000 pound mammal with ivory tusks and a trunk.

Any conversation about school discipline in America is inextricably entwined with race, because the disproportionate discipline that forgives white students and forgets Black students is as starkly contrasting as night and day, as reliable as the sunrise and the sunset.  

As CREED Executive Director James Ford, a former state Teacher of the Year and member of the State Board of Education, explains, there is little point in condemning, much less even asking, if educators handing down these unfair punishments are racists.

CREED Executive Director James Ford

“It’s the wrong question, the wrong concern,” said Ford. “We need to look at the system, and whether it substantially disadvantages students of color, which it is. That is provable. I try not to talk about what’s in a person’s heart.”

These numbers may not be wished away. They are not inevitable figures that we must accept with a woeful shake of the head. They require your angst, your concern, your willingness to consider change, and your willingness for action.  

As Ford explains, educators need training and more culturally responsive criteria for school discipline, and systems need to do more than cast a withering eye at these perpetual injustices.

We often talk about education as “the great equalizer,” but the argument goes both ways. Surely a system of education that disproportionately chastens children of color has the power to be the great unequalizer as well.  

These findings in North Carolina are, if such a thing is possible, so horrifically ho-hum because they are so redundant. To deny that race impacts discipline and, eventually, academic outcomes in Greensboro, in Guilford County, in North Carolina, and in the United States is to deny that numbers are numbers.

It is to look at centuries of American history with a blindfold and ear plugs. It is to imagine that racism yields to an invisible, impenetrable wall built around our schoolyards. To imagine this is worse than foolhardy; it is directly harmful to the children inside those schools.


B efore Guilford County’s school board could take their vote in November — which ended, as expected, with a 4-3 approval of the contentious appeals policy — they would hear from many more locals than Robinson.

Indeed, the public comment portion of their November meeting stretched for two hours. Many, like Robinson, were angry. Some were calm, deliberate. But no one sounded quite like Amos Quick, a Greensboro pastor, ex-school board member and, today, member of the state House of Representatives.

Quick, it seems, understood the tragedy of it all.

“I am a little bit aggrieved with myself,” he said. “I sat on this board for 12 years. And perhaps there is some student who missed out on their due process right, and by not having that right, that student has been veered off track.”

“The school system has a direct impact on the prison system,” Quick continued. “We know that. The data shows that. And what others have said about the disproportionate punishment for Black students, it cannot be refuted.”