Stark racial disparity in school discipline revealed by data investigation

ByChuck Goudie, Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Ross Weidner, Jonathan Fagg and Adriana Aguilar WLS logo
Friday, August 27, 2021
Investigation reveals stark racial disparity in school discipline
The ABC7 I-Team found that students of color are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, leading to questions of racial targeting.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As students across our area head back to school, an I-Team data investigation reveals stark racial disparity in how students are disciplined. Our data investigation examines the Discipline Disparity: students of color far more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, leading some students to question whether they are being targeted because of their skin color

"I can tell you that when you're walking down the hall. I have been stopped when I'm walking with my white friends substantially more," said Talib Becktemba-Goss, Oak Park and River Forest High School Graduate.

Becktemba-Goss graduated from OPRF high school this spring and spent his high school years fighting for racial equity.

An ABC7 I-Team analysis of discipline data for the 2019-2020 school year reveals that OPRF has the second-highest disparity rate statewide in exclusionary discipline. State officials track out of school suspensions or expulsions, along with the race of the students disciplined. District data shows students of color accounted for 86% of the district's suspensions despite making up only 43% of the school population.

"The problem is when you start picking and choosing who you're going to discipline that's where that bias has effect," said Becktemba-Goss.

"We're looking for fairness. If my child did something wrong, it should not matter what color they are in regard to what their punishment is going to be," said Melanie McQueen.

LEARN MORE: Explore the Equity Report

McQueen is an Oak Park parent who leads African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education. Her group has worked with school leaders to make sure policies are implemented equitably.

"The school is always reprimanding the African American students, particularly the African American male. They are not the only ones that show up late, they're not the only ones who forget their lock combination, They're not the only ones who didn't do homework last night," McQueen told the I-Team.

In a statement, OPRF officials tell the I-Team they are "committed to achieving racial equity" and their "vision of equitable excellence centers on eliminating the disparities that exist in our district."

"Although our racial disproportionality rate for disciplinary exclusions is high, our overall rate of exclusions is low, especially when compared to other districts in the state," district officials told the I-Team in the statement.

Chicago Public Schools ranks 20th in racial discipline disparity, out of the hundreds of school districts statewide. Our data analysis finds that CPS has by far the greatest number of suspensions and expulsions statewide with 9667 in the 2020 school year. A CPS spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

Evanston Township High School ranks ninth in the state in exclusionary discipline but district officials tell the I-Team they accidentally included some non-suspension discipline actions in their count, artificially making their state data look worse.

"There's no evidence that, you know, excluding students from days in schools or in some cases expelling them from that school is beneficial either to the student, or to the larger school community," said Alexios Rosario-Moore, Clinical Assistant Professor, UIC College of Education. "It is disproportionately impacting Latin X students, black students, and, and young men, as well."

U.S. Dept of Education data shows that in 2018 more than half of schools across the Chicago metro area had a racial and ethnic disparity in out-of-school suspension days. According to Chicago metro area data, black students here miss days due to disciplinary action at a rate six times higher than white students.

"Even one suspension in high school can really start a pipeline into students being at risk for dropping out, said Pamela Fenning, Professor, Loyola University Chicago. Fenning, a school discipline equity expert, is leading a team of graduate students examining discipline disparities during remote learning this past year. They are finding that students in Illinois were removed from online classes last year for reasons such as class disruption -- misuse of chat -- or failing to turn on the camera or microphone.

"We saw so many inequities in education pre-COVID and now we're only seeing more escalation in inequities," Fenning told the I-Team.

"As a student inside the classroom, you still see those biases you still see that teachers may or may not consciously be trying to but subconsciously they're targeting kids of color," Becktemba-Goss said.