Panel Paper: Race and Discipline in the Principal’s Office: How Student-Administrator Race Match Contributes to Suspension Disparities

Saturday, November 10, 2018
McKinley - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Nathan Barrett, Tulane University, Andrew McEachin, RAND Corporation, Jonathan N. Mills, University of Arkansas and Jon Valant, Brookings Institution

In the United States, students of color, students with disabilities, and students from low-income families are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than their peers (Anderson & Ritter, 2017; Barrett, McEachin, Mills, & Valant, 2017; Nichols, Ludwin, & Iadicola, 1999; Raffaele Mendez et al., 2002; Skiba, Peterson, & Williams, 1997). These disparities have attracted considerable attention, with fierce disagreement over the causes of—and solutions to—the gaps. Federal policymakers, for example, have debated how to handle guidance provided in a “Dear Colleague” letter from the Obama administration, while local and state policymakers have recently implemented an assortment of policies intended to reduce the incidence of exclusionary discipline (Steinberg & Lacoe, 2017).

Knowing how to address discipline disparities requires knowing what causes them in the first place. Recent studies have explored the role of discrimination by educators by race or family income (Barrett et al., 2017; Gilliam et al., 2016), along with the question of whether disparities arise within or across schools (Anderson & Ritter, 2017; Barrett et al., 2017; Skiba et al., 2014). One possibility attracting researchers’ interest is that the “match” between students and educators on dimensions such as race and gender affects students’ outcomes (Dee, 2005; Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015; Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016). In a study that is particularly relevant to our own, Lindsay and Hart (2017) examined student-teacher match in the context of student discipline, finding that black students tend to have lower rates of exclusionary discipline when assigned to black teachers.

This study will build on the existing literature by exploring the relationship between the race-match of students and school administrators (e.g., principals and assistant principals) and how students are punished. Teachers and administrators each play important roles in disciplining students. Oftentimes, teachers decide whether to refer a student to the principal’s office (and how to explain the student’s conduct), where administrators determine whether and how to suspend the student. While the role of student-teacher race match has been studied carefully (Lindsay & Hart, 2017), the role of student-administrator race match remains lacking in empirical evidence.

Having student-level data from the state of Louisiana for the 2000-01 through 2013-14 school years enables us to observe students’ discipline records (e.g., suspension length and incident type) and the race of the administrators in that school. With these data, we assess whether students’ punishments vary by the racial composition of their administrative staff.

While examining discrimination in how black and white students are punished for interracial fights, we found preliminary evidence that the gaps tended to arise from schools with either all-white or all-black administrative staffs (Barrett et al., 2017). This paper will extend that work, exploring the relationships between administrator race and discipline disparities, including its possible role in discriminatory discipline. In doing so, the study will introduce new evidence to an increasingly heated, relevant policy debate.