Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities in School Discipline in Georgia

Racial and socioeconomic disparities in school suspension among school-age children in Georgia and in the United States generally adversely influence the outcomes of individual students and contribute to the persistence of the achievement gap. According to the Department of Education, African-American students are suspended at more than three times the rate of their white classmates. Moreover, researchers have found that among Hispanic and white students, elevated rates of discipline are “entirely explained by…lower levels of socioeconomic status.” While these trends exist on a national scale, they are mirrored by public schools in Georgia. A 2014 AJC investigation concluded that “while African-American students comprise 37 percent of Georgia’s public school students, African-Americans make up about two-thirds of the students suspended or expelled.” Overly aggressive zero-tolerance policies and disciplinary practices in Georgia public schools have created an environment in which one in four students enrolled in a given school year will be disciplined, one in eight students will receive in-school suspension, and one in twelve students will receive out-of-school suspension.

Such high rates for suspension and disciplinary actions in Georgia public schools become more concerning when one considers that these practices often have long-term consequences, including decreased academic performance and increased risks of dropping out of school and becoming incarcerated. Although the high rates of suspension are partially due to racial discrimination, they are also partially due to the outcomes of systemic poverty, namely the inability to screen for relevant health barriers to learning before enrolling one’s child in school.

Vision screenings, hearings screenings, and speech-language assessments are all components of effective pediatric care, but these assessments are often not performed on all children because of parents’ financial or time constraints. For instance, 20 percent of school-aged children did not receive such assessments in the past year, and these children are primarily impoverished (19 percent) or uninsured (44 percent). About 1 percent of children entering school have hearing loss, and between 22 and 30 percent of children entering school fail vision screenings. As the majority of learning occurs through visual and auditory tasks, students with undetected visual or hearing impairments due to a lack of screening suffer educational and behavioral consequences in school.

Because a failure to undergo screenings can lead to adverse outcomes in school, requiring such screenings before taking disciplinary actions can help such students learn better and become better adjusted socially in school. For example, uncorrected vision problems often impede reading ability, and thus correcting vision impairment in children leads to improved reading performance. Uncorrected hearing impairment is associated with poor educational performance, higher rates of dysfunction in speech and behavior, and lower self-esteem; therefore, corrected hearing helps students become better adjusted to the classroom setting and improves educational performance.

A bipartisan group of state legislators has proposed House Bill 740 in order to require screenings of students from kindergarten to third grade before taking significant disciplinary action. While House Bill 740 is not capable of entirely eliminating the racial and socioeconomic disparities in school discipline in Georgia public schools, the bill recognizes the connection between undetected “Health Barriers to Learning” such as hearing impairment, vision impairment, or communication disorders and adverse behavioral and educational outcomes and attempts to reverse the trend of disciplining students with health barriers to learning.