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IU sociologist's study shows new evidence on racial inequality

Black girls experience greater racial inequality in school discipline than black boys, according to a recent study by an IU sociologist.

Brea Perry, associate professor of sociology, has been studying the topic for about five years and coauthored a paper with Ed Morris, a sociologist from the University of Kentucky.

The paper, titled “Girls Behaving Badly? Race, Gender and Subjective Evaluation in Discipline of African American Girls,” appears in the April 2017 issue of Sociology of Education.

The paper details Morris and Perry’s study, which analyzed data from middle and high school students from 2007 to 2011 in a large district of Kentucky. The researchers worked with the Children’s Law Center in Kentucky to get the data, which is something many school districts try to keep private, Perry said.

“The district we worked with legitimately wanted to change things for the better,” Perry said. “There’s a crisis in our country. School discipline rates are creating and exacerbating other social inequalities.”

Perry and her associate looked at the number of referrals for different demographic groups instead of only looking at suspensions or expulsions, which is where many studies are based.

Expulsions are relatively rare, so to look at specific gender and racial groups the researchers needed a larger set of data. In addition, they were interested in looking at lower-level offenses that could be gateways to suspensions and expulsions.

“If we were to only use suspensions, we would have missed things like dress code violations and disruptive behaviors,” Perry said. “Students are less likely to get a suspension in those cases.”

The study showed black girls were largely referred for discipline for disruptive behavior, dress code violations and other offenses that were largely subjective. In these cases, there is more discretion on the part of teachers of whether to ignore it, give them a referral or address it in a different way, Perry said.

At an absolute level, black boys are more likely to be suspended or receive a referral than any other group, Perry said. But if you compare black girls to white girls, the racial disparity is actually larger. So, black girls are being discriminated against based on race more frequently than black boys, Perry said.

“This study in particular actually garners some attention for black girls,” Perry said. “Even though we’re now seeing a decrease in overall rates of suspension, we still see large racial and gender disparities. Those aren’t going away and we’re not addressing those disparities.”

The particular district used in the study has a higher proportion of black students and a lower proportion of Latino students. The numbers aren’t representative of all areas of the country, but the rates of exclusionary discipline match the national average. Perry said this gave them no reason to believe the area was atypical in any way.

“We think you can generalize what we’re finding to other districts,” Perry said.

Now that this study is completed, Perry is going on to study disparities in special education with a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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