This post originally appeared in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

Long a pillar of our democracy, quality public education can serve as a pathway for millions of poor children of color to achieve economic and social mobility. So it is startling that for many African American and Hispanic students, school has become a fast-track to prison that starts as early as preschool and ends in increased school drop-out rates, unemployment, poverty, crime, and often incarceration.

The school-to-prison pipeline is the product of draconian school disciplinary policies that require suspensions, expulsions, school-based arrests, and referrals to law enforcement for relatively minor, non-violent infractions, such as tardiness and insubordination. These rules are disproportionately enforced against students of color, and their impacts are devastating. If we’re serious about addressing this “school-to-prison pipeline,” it’s imperative that we acknowledge and confront the subtle racial biases that give rise to these gaping social inequities.

The statistics are alarming. From suspensions and expulsions to in-school arrests and referrals to the juvenile justice system, African Americans students are overwhelmingly subject to disparate disciplinary actions. African American students constitute 34 percent of the 3 million students expelled from school annually, but only 16 percent of public school enrollment. And African American and Latino students represent 55 percent of students involved in “school-related arrests and 51 percent of “referrals to law enforcement.”

These disparities begin as early as preschool. According to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, African American children are just 18 percent of public preschoolers, yet nearly half of preschool children with more than one suspension are African American.

Education advocates have known about the school-to-prison pipeline for decades. While its causes involve many complex factors, policymakers have been reluctant to address racial bias as one of the causes of the disparate discipline. Recently, however, the science behind implicit bias is being used to explain the disproportionality of school discipline.

Implicit biases are subconsciously held beliefs that influence the way we view, treat, and make decisions about other people based on race, ethnicity, age, religion and appearance.  Simply put, implicit biases are imprints on our brains that reinforce negative stereotypes or beliefs about certain groups, even when we desire to be fair and view our decisions as impartial.

Researchers believe that implicit bias is influenced by our societal culture and norms about who in our society is viewed as powerful, privileged, and beautiful, and the groups or populations who are not. Implicit bias has received greater national attention in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Michael Brown police shooting as a way to understand the biases that influence conduct, particularly conduct by the police and others in authority, toward African American youth.

But implicit bias is not fait accompli. It can be corrected. Social scientists believe that just as implicit biases are acquired associations, they can be replaced with new mental associations. This corrective action is known as debiasing. It involves acknowledging the presence of implicit biases and consciously forging links between oneself and members of the disfavored group to reduce prejudice and stereotypes, promoting interpersonal connections across racial and ethnic groups and priming multiculturalism.

In January the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice jointly released federal policy guidelines to help schools administer discipline without discriminating on the basis of race.   Recently, the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaborative effort among the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, experts in education and behavioral health, law enforcement, parents, youth, and advocates, issued extensive recommendations, integrating the best and most innovative thinking around strategies to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline. Both the guidelines and recommendations briefly acknowledge implicit bias as a factor in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Although the guidelines and recommendations are important first steps, more needs to be done to address implicit racial bias in our schools. As of this school year, more than half of all K-12 students are now students of color. That trend, which is projected to increase, makes schools a natural place to begin decreasing racial bias. It also makes debiasing schools imperative for our future educational and economic success.

We should start by acknowledging that teachers and administrators may hold unconscious negative views and stereotypes about students of color that cause them to view their conduct and treat them differently. The Department of Education and the Department of Justice should issue additional guidance that incorporates recommendations based on the emerging social science on debiasing, including requiring cultural responsiveness training for educators, increasing the diversity of the educational workforce to better reflect the student population, and training educators to effectively teach diverse learners, including working with parents, guardians, and colleagues to improve their own practice and the success of students.

Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline is more important now than ever before. The recommendations above will help debias our schools, end the school-to-prison pipeline, and increase educational and economic equity.

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