Rhode Island School-To-Prison Pipeline: School Discipline


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


The School-To-Prison Pipeline: School Discipline

Across Rhode Island, black children face unwarranted racial disparities in their earliest years, with long-lasting consequences. The disparities begin in the classroom – and at a very early age. Despite the disastrous effects out-of-school suspensions can have, including the push into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Rhode Island public schools suspend black children at a tremendous rate, shuttling them out of the classroom and toward the courtroom. During the 2011-2012 school year, for example, black students comprised over 16% of suspensions statewide – more than twice their student population.1

As a result, a tremendous portion of the black student population is shunted out of the classroom and onto a track that can lead to a jail cell. Between 2004 and 2012, one out of every six black students – 17% of all black students who attended Rhode Island schools – received an out-of-school suspension along with their education. Just one in sixteen (6.25%) white students received the same treatment.

Worse, it is often the youngest children who suffer the most. While black high school students are twice as likely as white high school students to be suspended, a black elementary school student is six times as likely as a white elementary school student to suffer the same fate.2

Even though the negative consequences of suspensions are well known, Rhode Island’s schools issued suspensions against elementary school students more than 17,000 times in eight years. Twenty-eight percent of those elementary school suspensions involved a black student, even though they made up just nine percent of the elementary school student body, on average.3

The disparity is highlighted when one focuses on so-called “subjective” offenses. These are the vague, generally less serious types of infractions – such as Disorderly Conduct, Harassment, Insubordination/Disrespect, and Obscene or Abusive Language Toward a Teacher or Student – that are dependent in part on the perceptions of those involved and where the decision to punish is largely discretionary. For those offenses between 2004 and 2012, black students were suspended, on average, 2.4 times as often as their representation in the population would predict. White students, on the other hand, were suspended for subjective offenses just 0.7 times as often as (i.e., less often than) their population suggests.4

The elementary school disparity is also striking when looking at the less-serious “subjective offenses,” particularly since they include the most frequent reasons students are suspended. Black elementary school students make up nearly one-third of suspended students in this category, while comprising just nine percent of the students in the classroom. That they are suspended nearly three and a half times what is expected is even more striking since white students, who also comprise a third of elementary school suspensions, are punished just half as often as would be expected.5

From their earliest days, then, black children are disproportionately singled out, told they are bad, and given punishments with serious and long-lasting consequences. These children leave school desensitized to the potential for a lifetime of unequal treatment.

In 2016, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved legislation restricting the use of out-of-school suspensions. The ACLU continues to monitor the implementation of this law and its impact on the school-to-prison pipeline.

Next: Juvenile Justice
1ACLU of Rhode Island. (2014) Blacklisted: Racial Bias in School Suspensions in Rhode Island. Page 8. http://riaclu.org/images/uploads/Blacklisted_Report_2012_2013.pdf
2Ibid., p. 15.
3Ibid., p. 14.
4Ibid., p. 11-12.