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Do Charter Schools With Extreme Disciplinary Measures Cluster in Black Communities?

A CityLab analysis finds that some charter schools disproportionately suspend and expel students, especially in black neighborhoods.

Students enter Harlem's Opportunity Charter School, which issued 231 suspensions in 2014, more than any other New York City school that year. Opportunity says it has dramatically reduced suspensions down to 53 students as of the 2015-16 school year. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Shanice Givens’s son, Cyrus, was 6 when administrators at his charter school, Success Academy in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, put him on a list of students they wanted to push out. “They’d suspend him for not having on shoes, for not having his shirt tucked, for going to the bathroom,” says Givens. “So he lost courage and a will to want to do better.”

According to Givens, Cyrus was suspended 30 times that school year. Success Academy spokesperson Ann Powell says the kindergartner was suspended only seven times. Either way, that’s a lot of suspensions for a 6-year-old. Today, city leaders are increasingly pushing to reform school discipline practices to minimize suspensions for students like Cyrus, heeding calls from activists and researchers who say excessive discipline can fuel rises in student dropout rates and push young people into the criminal justice system.

In 2014, Boston mandated that suspensions and expulsions be treated as a last resort, and that such decisions must come with guaranteed due process for students and their families. Last year, Washington, D.C., passed a bill that would prevent schools from expelling or suspending pre-kindergartners, with some exceptions for classroom violence. And New York City is now pushing to ban suspensions entirely from kindergarten through second grade, albeit with some potential loopholes.

But data from these school districts indicate that one major factor may be undermining these reform efforts: charter schools.

In New York City, though the charter school student population represents just under 7 percent of the district’s total, charter schools accounted for nearly 42 percent of all suspensions, according to the latest available state data, from 2014.

Over the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years, of the 50 New York City schools with the most student suspensions, 46 were charter schools in 2013 and 48 were charter schools in 2014. Looking at suspension rates, 45 were charter schools in 2013 and 48 were charter schools in 2014. (These suspension rates control for student population and do not double-count students who receive multiple suspensions.)

A CityLab geographic analysis of these hyper-disciplinary schools finds that nearly all are concentrated in majority-black communities. And among the outlier schools, those with the most flagrant suspension numbers are clustered in the heart of New York’s black communities, particularly in Harlem in Manhattan and in Crown Heights, Brownsville, and East New York in Brooklyn.

Similar patterns extend beyond New York. According to 2011-2012 charter and traditional public school data from Washington, D.C., obtained by The Washington Post, charter schools accounted for 40 of the 50 schools with the most total suspensions and expulsions that year, despite the fact that they accounted for only 41 percent of the student population that year. Additionally, the 15 schools with the most suspensions and expulsions were all charter schools. And, as in New York City, when controlling for school population, the pattern held: Thirty-nine of the 50 schools with the highest suspension or expulsions rates were charter schools.

Visualizing this data again, it is clear that nearly all of these 50 high-discipline schools, 80 percent of which are charters, are located in neighborhoods with large black populations across the city. And, as in New York, the schools with the highest disciplinary numbers within this group were also clustered in the city’s densest black neighborhoods, east of the Anacostia River.

These racialized geographic disparities also abound in Boston, according to the latest available state data. Over the 2014-2015 school year, though Boston charter schools only accounted for 17 percent of the total student population, they made up 20 of the 50 schools with the highest percentages of student discipline incidents, which include suspensions and expulsions. Charter schools also made up seven of the 10 schools with the highest percentage of students suspended (counting both in-school and out-of-school suspensions).

As in New York and D.C., the majority of these schools, charter and public, were clustered in neighborhoods with Boston’s largest black populations, such as Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.

Examining the schools with the most suspensions in New York, D.C., and Boston, a few patterns emerge. In New York, five of the 10 schools with the most total suspensions in 2013 were part of two prominent charter school chains, Achievement First and Democracy Prep, which have drawn criticism for their strict disciplinary approaches. Both charter school chains have in the past explicitly adapted the NYPD’s “broken windows” approach into their student discipline policies, as the education writer Owen Davis notes in Jacobin.

In a charter school context, Davis argues, this approach encourages teachers to “rigorously enforce an intricate set of behavioral expectations on students,” who are also mostly black and Latino. Because of this approach, Davis writes, “minor infractions—a hand improperly raised, a shirt untucked … —invite escalating punitive measures: demerits, lost privileges, detention, suspension.”

The data suggest that this police-inspired disciplinary approach also may be pervasive in D.C. and Boston. In all three cities, KIPP charter schools have in years past been among those sites with the most disciplinary incidents. In Boston, the KIPP Academy Boston Charter School was ranked third-highest in in-school and out-of-school suspension rates, at 35 percent over the 2014-2015 school year. In D.C., KIPP had five sites in the top 20 schools with the greatest rate of suspensions or expulsions over the 2011-2012 school year.

KIPP school leaders have also sometimes embraced the “broken windows” theory for their disciplinary approaches, and have sparked controversy for pushing black and Latino students to adjust to frequent surveillance and physical conformity in some cases. A 2014 Atlantic piece described discipline at a KIPP school:

Teachers issued demerits when students leaned against a wall, or placed their heads on their desks. (The penalty for falling asleep was 10 demerits, which triggered a detention; skipping detention could warrant a suspension.) Teachers praised students for shaking hands firmly, sitting up straight, and “tracking” the designated speaker with their eyes. The 51-page handbook encouraged students to twist in their chairs or whip their necks around to follow whichever classmate or teacher held the floor. Closed eyes carried a penalty of two demerits. The rules did not ease up between classes: students had to walk single file between the wall and a line marked with orange tape.

“When we have a discipline issue with a student, KIPP educators work closely with the student and his or her family to find solutions that will get the student back into his or her learning environment as soon as possible,” Steve Mancini, the KIPP Director of Public Affairs, said in a statement to CityLab. “In recent years, KIPP has provided additional training to teachers across our network on possible alternatives to out-of-school suspensions.” Mancini also added that newer data have shown that KIPP schools have seen decreased suspension rates in these areas, noting, “We want to keep students in school as much as possible because we know there is a lot for them to learn.”

Research indicates such hyper-disciplinary practices go far beyond headline-grabbing charter school chains like KIPP. A 2016 UCLA Civil Rights Project study found that that almost half of all black secondary charter school students attended one of the 270 charter schools where the aggregate black suspension rate was around 25 percent, and where the student population was segregated (defined as at least 80 percent black). The researchers also noted that more than 500 charter schools suspended black students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than that of white charter school students.

Some racial justice advocates contend that these controversial school discipline approaches are made possible by the loose regulation and flexibility that school districts have afforded to charter schools.

“Charter schools have a free hand to treat black and Latino children however they want, so that explains why they have such high rates of expulsion and suspension,” says Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State Sacramento and the NAACP Education Chair of California. “It’s disturbing but not surprising that charters have accepted this discipline, but it’s just a continuation of the legacy of structural racism in this country.”

“Charter schools are in a market, and they’re competing to show their best selves,” says Carla Shedd, a Columbia University assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies and the author of a new book about Chicago youth’s contact with police in schools. “These policies are designed to exclude individuals who stop them from looking good based on, for example, test scores.”

Givens makes a similar argument about why charter school administrators targeted her son. “Cyrus has a different way of learning,” says Givens. “He’s hyper, and so any child they felt was difficult, they tried to force out.

The perceived harm that charter schools are disproportionately causing to black students through intense disciplinary practices has started to spark political pushback. In late July, delegates attending the NAACP national convention passed a resolution supporting a moratorium on any further expansion of privately managed charter schools, citing their role in furthering segregation and “psychologically harmful environments.”

“Charter schools are providing a seamless transition for [low-income, black] students in terms of how they are already treated, watched, and surveilled outside,” says Shedd. “The schools say, ‘We have to give them more structure and discipline,’ thinking of them as problem populations, rather than as individuals. You aren’t able to respond to kids when using a rubric that views a whole population itself as problematic.”

Over the past few years, several civil rights lawsuits have hit prominent charter schools, like Success Academy, for policies that enforce excessive discipline and which may set up certain types of students to fail. Resentment has begun to build, as some feel that such policies would never be imposed on middle-class white students.

“Charter schools think its okay to talk shit to our children, and treat them the way they do,” says Givens. “They come to these poor neighborhoods and they know they can do whatever the hell they want. They think people should be thankful... and they know, well, who is going to fight for them?”

*The maps in this post have been updated to include Census tract data.

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers schools, policing, and surveillance.