Skip to Content


Virginia Journal of Education

The Color of Discipline

Black students get suspended and expelled three times as often as White students. What can we do about it?

By Michelle Cottrell-Williams

As a relatively new teacher, I encountered Carlos, a ninth-grader, and it nearly brought my classroom career to a premature end.

I almost quit that year. Carlos (not his real name) didn’t do school the way I expected him to. I’d made certain assumptions, and I thought he would want to meet my expectations once he knew how much I cared about him.  

But he and his friends had different assumptions and so I found myself getting on them all the time. I’d stand between their desks and they’d literally speak around me. They threw things across the room at each other. I’d have to just throw them out of my room.
When Carlos was a senior, our paths crossed again, but several things had changed, for both of us. As you would expect, he had matured—but so had I.

I’d given birth to my first child and I knew I didn’t get mad at her when she cried—why would I expect her to know how to do things she’d never been taught to do? Having a daughter who was my world made me realize that each of my students was somebody else’s world, too. So, I shifted my approach to children who don’t act like me.

I’d also had some training in cultural competency, learned a little about Brene Brown’s research and been through “courageous conversations” training. I’d come to know something about school discipline statistics and how disproportionate they are for students of color.

All this made it possible to leave behind my past perceptions of Carlos and begin anew with him: I helped him, I talked with him like he was grown, I let him know that I knew he could succeed, and he flourished. I discovered that he loved making videos for class projects and watched with delight as his enthusiasm grew.

The difference was huge. I saw him that year, and he noticed that. His joy at seeing that someone else believed he could do it, and then actually doing it, was awesome for both of us.

We Have a Problem
There’s no denying it: Students of color in our public schools, like Carlos, are disciplined at higher rates than other groups. News organizations like The New York Times and USA TODAY regularly publish articles about the overrepresentation of Black and Latino boys in the U.S. Department of Education’s suspension data (see box “The Numbers Don’t Add Up”).

I teach at Wakefield High School, a highly diverse school in Arlington, one of the wealthiest and highest-ranked school divisions in Virginia. At Wakefield, no one demographic population makes up a majority: Hispanic students make up about 45 percent of our students, followed by White (21%), Black (19%), Asian (9%), and Multiple (5%). My colleagues are truly exceptional and care deeply about the success of all our students.

And still, our school’s pattern of disciplinary action follows the national trend when it comes to students of color.
For 12 years, I’ve watched and worked with hundreds of young men and women of color. After all this time, I cannot believe that they’re bad, or that they simply exhibit more challenging behaviors than their White and Asian classmates. Rather, here’s where I think the heart of the issue lies: research indicates that our society is so socialized to believe in the criminality of our Black and Brown students that educators spend more time watching young boys of color in anticipation of bad behavior, unconsciously expecting them to be troublemakers.

A 1975 Children’s Defense Fund report broke new ground when it highlighted racial disparities in disciplinary practices in our schools. Woven throughout the report were examples of classist and racially-motivated reactions from staff, with punishments meted out after little investigation into the causes of the students’ behaviors. Nearly two-thirds of suspensions in 1972-73 were for nonviolent and non-dangerous offenses and disproportionately affected children outside of the dominant, White culture. At my own school, the data for 2015-16 paint a brighter picture, with only 51 suspensions from a student population of nearly 2,000, all of which were related to fighting or drug-related offenses. Still, how much has really changed in the past 40 years?

Black students overall are suspended or expelled at a rate three times higher than White students, and Black girls at higher rates than any other girls and most boys, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2014 “Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” In addition, those disparities begin in preschool, where Black students are 18 percent of the enrolled population but 48 percent of suspensions, while the rates for White students are 43 percent and 26 percent, respectively. Also in preschool, 54 percent of enrolled students are boys, but they account for 79 percent of suspensions. Perhaps it’s because I teach in a high school, but it’s hard for me to imagine what justifies suspension in preschool, especially at such drastically disparate rates. USDOE’s latest report shows that the statistics have remained consistent.

How Widespread is Implicit Bias?
When students are suspended, they miss valuable instructional time, and the subsequent impact on academic achievement cannot be overlooked. The UCLA Civil Rights Project estimates that in 2011-12, public school children lost close to 18 million instructional days due to suspensions. This means that an entire cohort of students was pushed further away from academic success. When students miss school, they can’t keep up with their peers. Since exclusionary discipline practices are implemented as early as preschool and only increase in frequency into high school, they are essentially forcing certain children into a downward spiral.

It's clear that inequitable discipline practices disproportionately affect Black and Latino students. But why? Are they really exhibiting worse behaviors, or is something else going on? Researchers at Yale University explored implicit bias in preschool teachers, tracking eye movements and finding that when asked to watch for and report challenging behaviors in a group of preschool children, the participants spent significantly more time watching the Black boy, followed by the White boy, the White girl, and finally the Black girl.

The fact that the Black girl received the least attention from participants is important and certainly warrants further exploration. However, the extra attention paid to the Black boy, in anticipation of challenging behaviors, is most striking. None of the children in the study actually misbehaved, but the data made clear that participants expected the Black boy to cause the most trouble. These early implicit biases can lead directly to higher suspension rates for Black boys, uneven implementation of discipline, and a racial climate that undermines their achievement.

Do We Teach Students to ‘Act White’?
Several other factors, along with teacher bias, converge to give our Black and Latino students negative messages. Schools tend to promote assimilation by rewarding students whose speech and behavior fit in with the dominant, White, middle-class culture. While most teachers would never believe they’re teaching students to “act White,” they nevertheless perpetuate this message by favoring more compliant students with positive attention, good grades, and more leniency. Students who express Black authenticity through their dress and speech are seen to be challenging cultural norms, often leading school authorities to more quickly label them as dangerous and defiant. When a teacher assumes the worst of a student, she’s much quicker to view behavior as confrontational or challenging and refer to an administrator without stopping to understand. Without empathy, it’s much easier to apply punitive discipline to nonconforming students.

Additional researchers argue that Black students are referred to the office and punished more often than other racial groups for minor infractions that rely on subjective interpretation. They posit that this discriminatory treatment is part of the larger system of racial inequity across both school and society. While investigating reasons for the disproportionality in school discipline data, they found that Black boys are suspended more often because they receive more office referrals. This finding is consistent with the argument that racial bias and assimilationist thinking affect teacher perceptions because there is no actual higher incidence of challenging behaviors from these students.

Finally, the practice of tracking students into academically rigorous and non-rigorous classes disproportionately affects students of color, particularly those with a history of suspensions that led to losing significant instructional time. Too often, lower-tracked classes are taught by less experienced teachers who assert themselves with a classroom management style more aligned with a philosophy of rigid authoritarianism. Students of color, especially at the secondary level, tend to resist teacher authority or aggressive shows of power, which leads to harsher disciplinary punishments, thus continuing the cycle. Certainly, the cumulative effects of feeling singled out by teachers in lower grade levels may work to increase challenging behaviors exhibited by Black and Latino students as they enter adolescence. Well-known education researcher Pedro Noguera has said, reflecting on when teachers win an argument, take a cell phone, or otherwise defeat a child: “[Students learn] that if they were the one with the force, they could win.” While this is certainly not something we try to teach students, it’s the hidden message they receive from authoritarian disciplinary practices.

When we consistently tell students that they’re bad, the harmful impact cuts two ways. One, many young men of color begin to actually believe it. Two, and even more insidious, is the underlying message their classmates receive: that men of color are trouble, they don't fit in, or even that they are dangerous and will hurt you if you don't take measures to protect yourself. Something needs to be done to help increase our understanding of cultural differences and our empathetic responses.

Encouraging News: Training Helps
Here’s one very positive piece of news: A recent Stanford University study examined the effectiveness of empathy training on suspension rates at three U.S. middle schools in different parts of the country. The results: One year of empathy training cut suspension rates in half at all three schools. The driving hypothesis was that punitive discipline actually encourages future misbehavior. The researchers hoped to show that when teachers respectfully respond to behaviors in ways that value students’ needs and perspectives, challenging behaviors are reduced. In the training, teachers participated in two short exercises designed to create a more empathetic mindset. At the end of the year they found that, even when controlling for race and gender, suspension rates were 9.8 percent in the control group, but only 4.6 percent among participants.

I think the results of this simple approach are both astounding and encouraging. I remain convinced that all but a very small minority of teachers come to the profession with the best of intentions and are truly doing their best for students. Therefore, I have to believe that when teachers are reminded of their responsibility to practice empathy, especially with their most challenging students, and are able to see a positive shift in their relationships as a result, they’ll feel empowered to continue to respond with kindness.

It’s imperative that we find ways to close the discipline gap by addressing three of its biggest culprits: the implicit biases of educators, a lack of empathy or understanding for “the other,” and an ill-placed need for some teachers to maintain control by forcing compliance with culturally-specific rules. As educators, we need training to recognize our biases, develop culturally responsive pedagogies, and practice empathy for all students. If we can be better-equipped in these areas, we’ll grow in the use of culturally responsive practices and keep students in the classroom instead of referring or suspending them, causing them to fall even further behind.

That Yale study on implicit bias in preschool teachers has been the most eye-opening piece of research for me. If we’re unintentionally profiling Black students by watching the boys more closely in anticipation of bad behaviors and essentially ignoring the girls, I think about how the effects of these biases must build up over the years. Black boys surely begin school with the same enthusiasm and willingness to please as any five-year-old, but it can’t be easy to feel like you’re constantly watched, expected to misbehave, and punished every time you slip up. I have to imagine, as the years go by, many of these students choose to live up to stereotypes their teachers hold of them, figuring if they’re going to get in trouble anyway, they may as well misbehave on purpose. Others may lose trust in their teachers and want to rebel out of anger or shame over the labels they’ve been given.

How can a child be expected to inherently know how to overcome this cycle? And yet, these children come to high school, where their teachers assume they already know how to comply with the myriad of expectations held by every adult who interacts with them each day.

In my own classroom, I work to build trust and empathize with my students. I learn who they are, value their stories, and respect their experiences. I listen and allow students the benefit of the doubt. I share my intentions, my expectations, and my philosophy with them. I take their side. I don't often experience disruptive or disrespectful behavior in my classroom but when I come across it in the halls I respond with kindness instead of anger. I believe in second chances and that each day is a fresh start.

When I was in high school, I was never once reprimanded by a teacher, sent to the office, given detention, or suspended. In fact, I was usually considered a favorite among my teachers. However, this cannot be because I always followed the rules. As teenagers do, I at times skipped classes, forged my mother’s signature, cheated on assignments, and spoke unkindly about my peers. Despite this, the adults in my life chose to give me the benefit of the doubt. They trusted that my motives were not malicious and allowed me space to explore the boundaries of my adolescence. They showed me empathy and guided me as I developed into a confident, capable adult. I believe that every student deserves to be treated with this same generosity and empathy.

My responsibility is not to teach students how to become more like me; rather, it’s to help them become more themselves. By trusting my students and maintaining a practice of empathy, I allow them the space they need to find their voices and become their best selves.

Cottrell-Williams, a member of the Arlington Education Association, is the 2018 Virginia Teacher of the Year and a social studies educator at Wakefield High School. Since 2006, she has taught many different subjects and levels of students but is most passionate about teaching social justice and supporting English learners. Here, she finds the greatest opportunities to support students who sometimes struggle to feel like they belong. Her website is and you can find her on Twitter at @WakeHistory.



The Numbers Don’t Add Up

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

• Students of color have a disproportionately high rate of school suspensions and expulsions. For example, Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students (16 percent vs. 5 percent).

• The same is true for students of color and their rates of arrest and referral to law enforcement. Black students represent 15 percent of total student enrollment, but 31 percent of students referred to law enforcement or arrested in school-related incidents. White students make up 49 percent of enrollment, but 36 percent of students referred to law enforcement and/or arrested.

• In Virginia, Black students are 23.3 percent of total enrollment, but 52.5 percent of students who received at least one out-of-school suspension. White students, while representing 52.2 percent of enrollment, received 34.3 percent of those penalties.


VEA Steps Up to Help

Your Association stands ready to help you become part of the solution to the inequity in school discipline statistics. Through VEA’s Office of Teaching & Learning, you and your colleagues can arrange training workshops on topics such as:

• Cultural competence
• Diversity
• Conflict resolution
• Communication skills
• Improving school climate
• Dealing with difficult people
• LGBTQ awareness

For more information and to schedule a workshop in your area, visit



We Must Go Deeper

By Toney L. McNair, Jr.

The disproportionately high rate of suspensions and expulsions among students of color is, in my opinion, an indication of deeper systemic issues and under-addressed factors like insufficient family engagement, limited consideration for learning styles, wrong placement of students in certain classroom environments, lack of Black male educator role models, and false assumptions about the Black and Brown culture that subconsciously influence how students are dealt with. 

There is much work to be done in these areas if we are going to have a significant impact on school discipline statistics. For example, I’m an avid proponent of family engagement from the very start of schooling. My parents were actively engaged, and so were many others in my community. Are we doing enough to engage parents and families, at all levels? Is the school environment inviting, or is our welcome just empty words? When I’ve been able to give parents more ownership in teaching and learning by inviting them to freely come into my classroom, negative behaviors go way down. In fact, over the past few years, I can count the number of referrals I’ve written in my class on one hand! The point is that we need to look at what causes the behaviors that lead to school suspensions and expulsions. 

The numbers will not decrease unless there is a true commitment to addressing those causes. Educators need training in areas including equity and diversity, understanding learning styles, creating innovative learning environments, and incorporating community stakeholders in the learning community.

Dr. McNair, president of the Chesapeake Education Association, was Virginia’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.



Take action to boost K-12 funding and support better pay.


Stay in touch with VEA and your fellow members.

Check out VEA and NEA Member Benefits savings programs.

Embed This Page (x)

Select and copy this code to your clipboard