Picture this scene: A high school student arrives at class late and lets the door slam, disrupting his peers who are taking a test. When the teacher says “Hey!” the boy slams the door again and looks defiant. What happens next?
The answer depends partly on the student’s race, according to a study by Jayanti Owens, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM. She showed teachers videos of teen actors performing identical misbehaviors. If the actor was Black, the teachers tended to consider the behavior more blameworthy and were more likely to refer the kid to the principal’s office—even though their actions were the same as those of White actors.
The teachers’ responses also depended on the school where they worked. If the school had many minority students, teachers tended to blame all kids for misbehavior more, regardless of their race or ethnicity. In other words, schools that Black and Latino boys disproportionately attend appear to have a more punitive culture.
“It really is about the climate of the school and not about the worse behavior of the students that go there,” Owens says.
Major racial and ethnic disparities still exist in school discipline. Black boys are about three times more likely than White boys to be suspended or expelled. For Latino boys, the rate is about 30% higher than for White peers.
Several possible explanations have been put forward. Some studies suggest that schools with many Black and Latinx students are more likely to use harsh disciplinary policies, such as “zero tolerance.” Stricter schools also often employ surveillance tactics such as security cameras and police officers. Even if the kids’ behavior is the same as those in less heavily surveilled schools, “you’re more likely to get suspended partly because you’re more likely to get caught,” Owens says.
Another hypothesis is that teachers perceive minority students’ behavior differently. For example, in one previous study, K-12 teachers read descriptions of a student misbehaving twice. If the student was named Darnell or Deshawn (more typical of Black boys), the teacher rated the repeated behavior as more severe and irritating, and deserving harsher punishment, compared to students named Greg or Jake.
To test how much disparities were driven by teachers’ bias or the school’s climate, while controlling for students’ actual behavior, Owens devised an experiment. She decided to focus on boys in their high school years because schools discipline boys about twice as often as girls, and this gender gap is particularly wide in high school. So Owens worked with a director and videographer to develop videos of White, Black, and Latino teenage male actors performing three identical sequences of misbehavior: slamming a door twice, texting repeatedly during a test, and throwing a pencil into a trash can and crumpling a test booklet.
Owens then surveyed 1,339 teachers at 295 middle and high schools across the country. Each teacher watched a video presented at random, showing one boy performing one misbehavior. The teacher wrote a description of the kid’s actions and indicated whether they would refer the student to the principal’s office. Owens’ team calculated the fraction of blaming, empathetic, or neutral words or phrases in the teacher’s description to determine a “blameworthiness” rating.
Overall, teachers were 6.6 percentage points more likely to say they would send a Black boy to the office than a White boy, Owens found. About one-quarter of that disparity was driven by higher levels of blame. On average, the teachers seemed to believe that the Black kids truly were behaving more negatively than the White kids, “even though they’re not,” she says. “They’re all behaving the same way.”
The other three-quarters of the disparity was due to a higher office referral rate even when the level of blame was the same. In other words, if a Black boy and White boy were judged to be similarly blameworthy, the Black student was still more likely to be sent to the office.
There are several possible reasons for the higher referral rate, Owens says. If a teacher believes minority students are worse behaved, they might want to get them out of their classroom. Or they might think Black parents are less likely than White parents to complain, or that the school administrator is less likely to push back on the teacher’s decision.
For Latino boys, the blame level and referral rate weren’t significantly different than for White boys, Owens found. The discipline gap for those kids appears to be “emerging more from the punitive nature of the schools that Latino students attend,” and less from individual teachers’ biases, she says.
She reached this conclusion by examining how the teachers’ responses to the videos varied depending on the demographic composition of students at their school. For the purposes of the study, the school was considered a “minority school” if at least 35% of the kids were Black or Latinx and a “White school” if at least 65% of students were White. In this analysis, Owens controlled for the level of disruptive misbehavior that teachers said they experienced at each school.
Teachers from minority schools blamed the kids in the videos more than teachers in White schools did, regardless of whether the actor was White, Black, or Latino. In other words, if White students were transplanted to minority schools, those kids would be referred to the office more frequently simply because of the nature of the school.
School administrators could employ a variety of policies to correct these disparities, Owens says. To reduce teachers’ propensity to blame Black students, schools could offer empathy interventions that encourage teachers to consider reasons that a student might misbehave (such as lack of nutritious food or being exposed to conflict at home). To close the office referral gap, schools could change or clarify the criteria for behaviors that merit referral.
Softening the punitive culture at minority schools could involve restorative justice techniques, such as mediation. When hiring teachers and administrators, schools could try to gauge whether applicants favor such techniques over harsh punishment.
While Owens identified multiple factors that affect discipline rates, the relative contribution of each one will likely vary across districts, she says. Administrators should consider which factors play the strongest roles at their schools when choosing interventions. They “need to understand the processes that are driving the disparities,” she says.