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Reflections on the Racial Web of Discipline

Crystal T. Laura (ctlaura2 [at] researches, teaches, and organizes in Chicago to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for youth everywhere. Her first book, Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the Social Ecology of Discipline, is under way.

“I’d rather be a bum than go back,” my baby brother told me when I asked about what was happening at school. That was back in 2008. The U.S. economy was slipping deeper into a recessionary sinkhole, and a steady flow of reports surfaced about a fourteen-year-high unemployment rate, hiring freezes, layoffs, and cuts in wages and working hours. At a time when many people began staying in or going back to school, my brother seemed to be looking for a way out.

“As a teacher, a student of education policy and curriculum, and your big sister,” I said to him, “I have got to keep it real with you.” I told my brother that high school dropouts are far more likely than graduates to be unemployed and underemployed, to earn less when they get a job than those with a high school diploma, and to get caught up in the criminal justice system than those who complete high school.1 “Research tells us,” I went on, “that high school dropouts are overwhelmingly black and male—just like you—and disproportionately represented in our state and federal prisons.”2 My brother admitted that he had been flunking almost all of his classes, serving more and more time on school punishment, and getting in trouble with the law.

Within days, I practically moved back in with my parents to be near my brother in the midst of his daily life as it unfolded. Almost intuitively, I documented much of what occurred in and around my family home, as we shared meals and watched television together, gossiped and conversed, drove each other around town, and otherwise hung out. I catalogued the details of critical incidents, the settings in which they took place, the conversations that occurred within and about them, and my own interpretations of it all. I kept two journals—one to keep track of what I was seeing, what I understood my brother and others to be seeing, and what I deemed particularly important to reflect upon with the family; the other to chronicle this process. I certainly wanted him to stay, excel, and be emotionally and spiritually well in school. But I was also deeply invested in better understanding why leaving school made sense to him, what was going on with him in that moment, how he had come to that point, and where the places of conflict and change might have been.

The truth was that long before, and better than anyone else, my brother knew he would drop out of school—as soon as he could figure out what else someone his age might do with himself. He was a boy of five or six when he learned that he was “different”; at ten he was a “problem child”; at fifteen he was “disabled.” To him, “dropout” seemed like a natural progression. It took several months of sustained attention and digging for me to figure this out. By then, he had discovered the Job Corps. He left home and high school in October 2008.

I think of my brother each time the subject of “bad kids” emerges in my teacher education courses. The last semester I taught a class on urban educational policy, that topic was a particular favorite among students; almost everyone wanted to know how to run a tight ship, stay sane, and keep safe with so many “troublemakers” and “class clowns” in contemporary public schools. Whenever I pushed people to unpack the beliefs embedded within this kind of teaching philosophy and everyday language, things always got ugly. Public schools were equated with city schools, city kids with cultural poverty and dysfunction. The stock stories commodified by the mainstream media—the news, Hollywood films, cable and network television, and the music industry—about pathological and dangerous youth poured. And the grapevine, with its salacious tales from the field, was tugged as proof positive that some children—mostly poor kids and kids of color—will inevitably fall through the cracks.

As lively as these discussions were, no one ever seemed to want to talk about the connections between how we think and talk about children and how we treat them in social and academic contexts. A hush usually fell over the class of twenty-five future teachers when I suggested that demonizing ideology and discourse enables a whole social web of discipline—a web of relationships, conditions, and social processes—that works on and through the youth who rub against our understanding of “good” students. Part of this silence was certainly rooted in the fact that challenging and unlearning what we assume we know is uncomfortable, and that finagling around contradictions and tensions is easier than diving into and grappling with them. But I found that profound ignorance also accounted for the group’s resistance to a structural examination of the conversation around “bad kids.” Herein lay the teachable moment, and I tended to lean on critical education research for support and perspective.

One of the most powerful metaphors in critical education literature is “the school to prison pipeline.” The phrase conjures a vivid, unambiguous image, the meaning of which few would debate: poor and black and brown children being sucked into a vortex from mainstream educational environments and heaved onto a conveyor belt carrying them onto a one-way path toward privatized prisons, where the economic outcome of under-education and discipline is most evident.

Each year, Civic Enterprises reported in The Silent Epidemic, almost one-third of public school students and nearly one-half of youth of color do not graduate high school with their class.3 The problem is particularly acute for African-Americans, who represent about 15 percent of those below the age eighteen but make up 14 percent of all school dropouts, 26 percent of all youths arrested, 46 percent of those detained in juvenile jails, and 58 percent of all juveniles sent to adult prisons.4 The school to prison pipeline is not an ideological claim; the numbers speak for themselves.

Stacks of research reports convey the magnitude of the plight facing, in particular, black adolescent males in our public schools. At all levels of the K-12 trajectory—elementary, middle, and high school, black boys lag behind their peers academically. Pedro Noguera put it this way: on every indicator associated with progress and achievement—enrollment in gifted programs, advanced placement classes, and otherwise enriched courses—black males are vastly underrepresented. Conversely, in every category associated with failure and distress—discipline referrals, grade retention, and dropout rates—black males are overrepresented.5 Black boys have the lowest graduation rates in most states; nearly half of all black adolescent males in the United States quit high school before earning a diploma.6

My teacher education students typically sat up a little straighter when I told them about my brother’s schooling experiences. Eyebrows raised when I pointed to the published material about the ways in which contemporary educational policies and practices, such as school punishment and the application of special education categories, work together to move young people like him from schools to jails.

It surprised them to learn that in 1994, federal legislation mandated a one-year expulsion for any public school student in possession of a firearm on school grounds.7 Shortly thereafter, the Safe School Act revised and broadened the law to prohibit any student from bringing a “dangerous weapon”—just about anything that looks harmful—to school. Predictably, the number of school expulsions exploded, and disproportionately affected black youth.

Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools, a book that I assigned to the class, was written in response to this reality.8 Contributing authors to the anthology examine the dangers of zero tolerance policies and explore alternatives; they tell stories from the ground floor of schools and classrooms; they examine the legal precedents that zero tolerance policies bring in; they look at how the media enables and promotes zero tolerance, and what it means for students with disabilities; they deal with broad issues of race and racism in education, and the political economy that supports zero tolerance; and they provide the statistical landscape of the problem. In the closing chapter, Michelle Fine and Kersha Smith synthesize the research to assess the impact of zero tolerance policies, given their intended purposes and “unintended” consequences. They argue that zero tolerance policies are neither effective nor worth their salt, neither equitable nor educational: “They do not make schools safer; they produce perverse consequences for academics, school/community relations, and the development of citizens; they dramatically and disproportionately target youth of color; and they inhibit educational opportunities.”9

In response to a flurry of books and reports by academics, organizers, and journalists that effectively show how zero tolerance punishes students by depriving them of an education, some school districts have scrapped these policies. In Chicago, where I live and work, zero tolerance policies in the district’s schools were abolished in 2006 in favor of restorative justice approaches to harm and healing. Nevertheless, the number of suspensions has nearly doubled since then. Black boys in elementary school in my hometown are five times more likely to be suspended than white boys in the city’s public school system.10

Black boys comprise 23 percent of the district’s student population, but amount to 61 percent of those who are expelled. One in four black boys was suspended at least once in 2008. In suburban Cook County, where my brother went to school, the racial disparity is also apparent: black boys accounted for just 11 percent of students, but 35 percent of those suspended at least once, and 44 percent of those expelled. At mixed-race schools, where black male students comprise just 12 percent of enrollment, they make up 30 percent of those suspended and 54 percent of those expelled. The risk is great, even at all-black and predominantly black schools, where the overall rate of suspensions and expulsions is highest.

But the problem is much bigger than Chicago. Black youth, particularly males, are more likely than any other group in the United States to be punished in schools, typically through some form of exclusion. Black students are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than their peers for less serious and more subjective reasons, such as disrespect, disruption, excessive noise, threats, loitering, among others.11 As unbelievable as the over-disciplining of black students may seem to well-intentioned adults, it is all too real for the youth who experience it. Young people are sharp and extraordinarily attentive to their own thinking and the thinking of others. They know intuitively what we have spent more than thirty years documenting; they are well aware of these disciplinary discrepancies.12

More than ten years ago, Ann Ferguson conducted a study of “Rosa Parks Elementary School” on the West Coast—where black boys made up one-quarter of the student body, but accounted for nearly half the number of students referred for discipline; where three-quarters of those suspended were boys, four-fifths of those were black; and where black males of ten and eleven were routinely described as “at-risk” of failing, “unsalvageable,” or “bound for jail.” She tried to understand how school labeling practices and the exercise of rules worked as part of a hidden curriculum to marginalize and isolate black boys in disciplinary spaces and brand them as criminally inclined. To explore these processes, Ferguson had to pay attention to everyday life at the school, observing all of the sites where she was given access and talking to kids and adults about their beliefs, relationships, and the common practices that give rise to a practice in which the children who are sent to disciplinary spaces in school systems across the United States are disproportionately black and male.

In Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity Ferguson described what she found. Presuming that schooling is a system for sorting and ranking students to take a particular place in the existing social hierarchy, Ferguson perceived that the politics of “misbehavior” played out in the labeling of black students as substandard or deficient in the application of school rules. She learned that what counts as “proper” behavior was filtered through stereotypical representations, beliefs, and expectations that school adults held about their children. Black boys, in particular, were refracted through cultural images of black males as both dangerous and endangered, and their transgressions were framed as different from those of other children.

Black boys were doubly displaced. As black children, they were not seen as childlike, but adultified; their misdeeds were “made to take on a sinister, intentional, fully conscious tone that is stripped of any element of childish naiveté.”13 As black males, they were denied the masculine dispensation that casts white males as “naturally naughty”; they were discerned as willfully bad.14 Perhaps Ferguson’s greatest insight was that the youth themselves were acutely “aware not only of the institution’s ranking and labeling system, but of their own and other children’s position within that system,” a perceptivity that shaped some of the boys’ processes of disengaging from school.15

The research is clear: those who are absent from school—physically or mentally—perform poorly, and they are at risk of dropping out. A 2001 report by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national nonprofit organization representing state juvenile justice advisory groups, found that a student who is suspended just once is three times more likely to leave school without a diploma: “Suspension is a moderate to strong predictor of a student dropping out of school; more than 30% of sophomores who drop out have been suspended. Beyond dropping out, children shut out from the education system are more likely to engage in conduct detrimental to the safety of their families and communities.”16

Excessive discipline is often a critical first step out of schools for select youth—black boys, in this case—who disproportionately find themselves in prison. Being designated as disabled nudges the other foot out of the schoolhouse door. We have known for decades that black kids, especially young black males, end up in subjective disability categories more often than other children. Critiques of the disproportional placement of black youth in special education began circulating, at least among academics, as early as the 1960s, when people began noticing that schools had devised new ways to subvert the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decree.17

The story of the overrepresentation of youth of color in special education is a familiar one, but the numbers are no less unsettling. Black children constitute about 17 percent of all students enrolled in school, but they account for 33 percent of those identified as cognitively disabled. Black students are nearly two times as likely to be labeled learning disabled as white students, almost two times as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed, and three to four times as likely to be labeled mentally retarded. Among all disability categories, mental retardation is the most likely to be assigned to black youth, particularly black males.18 And, contrary to the expected trend, black boys who attend school in wealthier communities are actually more likely to be labeled mentally retarded than those attending predominantly black, low-income schools.19

The implications for black youth of these three classifications in particular—Learning Disability (LD), Emotional Disturbance (ED), and Mental Retardation (MR)—are far reaching. Students labeled ED and MR have the lowest graduation rates and the highest dropout rates.20 More than half of all black students with emotional and behavior problems leave school, and the majority of all students with emotional and behavior problems who do not finish high school are arrested within three to five years of quitting school.21 Young people without a high school diploma are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed, to earn less when they get a job than those with a high school diploma, and to be incarcerated.22

The data is consistent and robust, and many smart people agree that disagreement about the interpretation and application of these “judgment” categories is part of the problem. “Neither ‘rationality’ nor ‘science’” control the process by which a child is assessed for these disabilities and referred for special education.” Beth Harry and Janette Klingner wrote in their book, Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education?23 Rather, the authors noted six perspective-based factors that shaped the outcomes of conferences on eligibility and placement: (1) school personnel’s impressions of the family, (2) a focus on intrinsic deficit rather than classroom environment, (3) teacher’s informal diagnoses, (4) dilemmas of disability definitions and criteria, (5) psychologists’ philosophical positions, and (6) pressure from high stakes testing to place a student in special education.24

The meaning of each “judgment” category has been understood differently across states, applied inconsistently within schools and districts, and shifted through time. As the category of MR became overpopulated with black students in the early years after Brown v. Board of Education, the new label of LD gave well-resourced families of white children a different and purportedly less stigmatizing way to explain their children’s difficulties, to gain access to special services, and to set apart their children’s disabilities from those of their peers of color.25 With increasing legal pressure during the 1970s and throughout the 1980s to minimize the number of youth of color diagnosed as mentally retarded, the same effects of racial bias that had once produced high rates of mental retardation among this group were expressed through an LD diagnosis.26 This contextualizes Harry and Klingner’s report that the number of students labeled MR between 1974 and 1998 declined from 1.58 percent to 1.37 percent, while ED increased from 1 percent to more than 5 percent, and LD increased from 1.21 percent to 6.02 percent.27

Certainly, some students do benefit from the resources and accommodations that a disability label provides, but research shows that many do not.28 More specifically, it suggests that special education is often a dumping ground for youth of color, and that black boys are especially susceptible to being under-educated—labeled, shunned, and treated in ways that create and reinforce an inevitable cycle of failure.29

When my students were sufficiently inundated with the kinds of material discussed above, they urged me to help them sift through and make sense of it all. I broke it down like this: What I gather from some of the research on school discipline and special education is that these policies are panoptic systems of surveillance, exercises of power used continuously and purposely to monitor poor youth and youth of color.30 Black boys in particular are unevenly punished and tracked into educational disability categories in their early years, practices that tend to reinforce the very problems they intend to correct. And although this is enough to make reasonable people want to holler, even more insidious is the internalization by those under surveillance of the experiences and labels assigned to them, when they believe that exclusion and isolation is acceptable, when they learn to condition themselves. Finally, black boys who have been sorted, contained, and then pushed out of schools become black men—men whose patterns of hardship are pronounced and deeply entrenched—men who comprise nearly 50 percent of the adult males in prison—men who have been well primed neither for college, career, nor full participation in our democracy, but instead for punitive institutionalization.

The weight of my day job hit me hard when I stood behind a glass partition in a Chicago jail and watched my baby brother approach from the other side. He was barely eighteen; lanky, big brown eyes swollen, bruised, and uncharacteristically dim. He cupped his hands around the grate covering a hole in the divide between us. My mind raced—anger, fear, helplessness, and despair swirled in circuitous loops. My feet softened and as I pressed toward the glass. I listened intently to the sound of his self-chastisement, and I heard the synchronized chorus of our country’s power structures—the media, the law, the economy, the public mind, and the field of education—egging him on.


  1. Erica R. Meiners, Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies (New York: Routledge), 60.
  2. Becky Petitand Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 69, no. 2 (2004):151-69.
  3. Civic Enterprises, “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.” Civic Enterprises, retrieved September 24, 2010,
  4. Coalition for Juvenile Justice (2006), “African American Youth and the Juvenile Court System,” retrieved September 25, 2010,
  5. Pedro A. Noguera, The Trouble with Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), xvii.
  6. Schott Foundation for Public Education, “Public Education and Black Male Students. “ 2004, retrieved September 24, 2010 from
  7. Advancement Project, Padres and Jovenes Unidos, Southwest Youth Collaborative, & Children & Family Justice Center of Northwestern University Law School, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, retrieved September 24, 2010,
  8. William Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Rick Ayers, eds., Zero tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Schools, (New York: The New Press, 2001).
  9. Michelle Fine and K. Smith, “Zero Tolerance: Reflections on a Failed Policy that Won’t Die,” in Ayers, et al., eds., Zero tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Schools, 256-63.
  10. “Reaching Black Boys” Catalyst Chicago XX no. 5 (2009).
  11. Russell J. Skiba, “When Is Disproportionality Discrimination?: The Overrepresentation of Black Students in School Suspension,” in Ayers, et al., eds., Zero Tolerance, 176-87.
  12. Rosa Hernández. Sheets, “Urban Classroom Conflict: Student-Teacher Perception,” The Urban Review 28, (1996):165-183, and Frances Vavrus and K. Cole, “’I Didn’t Do Nothin’: The Discursive Construction of School Suspension,” The Urban Review 34 no. 2 (2002) 87-111.
  13. Ann Arnett Ferguson, Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2001), 83.
  14. Ann Arnett Ferguson, Bad Boys, 80.
  15. Ibid., 97.
  16. Coalition for Juvenile Justice, (2006), 13.
  17. L.M. Dunn, “Special Education for the Mildly Retarded—Is Much of It Justifiable?” Exceptional Children 35 no. 1 (1968): 5-22.
  18. D.J. Losen and G. Orfield, eds., Racial Inequity in Special Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2002).
  19. D.P. Oswald, M.J. Coutinho, and A.M. Best, “Community and School Predictor of Overrepresentation of Minority Children in Special Education,” in Losen and Orfield, eds., Racial Inequity in Special Education, 1-13.
  20. U.S. Department of Education, 2002; T. Hehir, New Directions in Special Education: Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice (Boston: Harvard Educational Publishing Group, 2005).
  21. J. McNally, “A Ghetto within a Ghetto: African-American Students Are Over-represented in Special Education Programs,” Rethinking Schools Online 17, no. 3 (2003), retrieved September 24, 2010,
  22. Becky Petit and Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 69 (2004): 151-69.
  23. B. Harry and J.K. Klingner, “Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education?” Understanding Race and Disability in Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 2005), 103.
  24. Ibid.
  25. B.A. Ferri and D.J. Connor, Reading Resistance: Discourses of Exclusion in Desegregation and Inclusion Debates, (New York: Peter Lang, 2006).
  26. C. Ong-Dean, Distinguishing Disability: Parents, Privilege, and Special Education, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  27. Harry and Klingner, “Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education?”, 4.
  28. D. Fuchs and L.S. Fuchs, “What’s “Special” about Special Education?” Phi Delta Kappan 76 (1995): 522-30; R.E. Slavin, “Students at Risk of School Failure: The Problem and Its Dimensions,” in R.E. Slavin, N.L. Karweit, and N.A. Madden, eds., Effective programs for students at risk (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1989) 3-17.
  29. Pedro Noguera, The Trouble with Black Boys, xxi.
  30. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).
2011, Volume 63, Issue 03 (July-August)
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