Schools discipline black children more often, Virginia study finds

Katharine DeRosa, Contributing Writer

Information compiled by Katharine DeRosa. Infographic by Andy Caress

A recent study found that black children in Virginia are disproportionately charged with disorderly conduct in schools when compared to their white counterparts.

The report from the Legal Aid Justice Center, which has offices across Virginia, found that the law is often brought down upon school children who do something to disturb the peace of a school day — whether it was intentional or not.

According to the report, actions such as interrupting class qualify as disorderly conduct and have the potential to lead to punishments such as curfew, monetary fines, community service and occasionally time in a juvenile detention center.

The report defines disorderly conduct as “vague, overbroad, catch-all law that criminalizes low-level public disruption that does not rise to the level of physical harm, property damage, or even threat,” and asserts that the law is consistently used against minority groups.

The report on the study was compiled by Amy Woolard, Rachael Deane and Shannon Ellis.

“We gathered data from the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice on Disorderly Conduct complaints and data from the Virginia Department of Education on student membership counts,” Woolard said in an email, “all disaggregated by race and gender.”

The report stated that between 2016 and 2019, black students accounted for 22% of the school population in Virginia, but on average received 62% of the school-based disorderly conduct criminal complaints.

VCU sociology professor Travis Williams said he believes institutional racism plays a role in these findings, and that they were consistent with other reports he had read from across the country.

“I would say it doesn’t surprise me,” Williams said. “It’s definitely kind of bewildering and upsetting. I do think that it’s for a lot of different complicated reasons that result in institutionally unequal outcomes.”

The report found that black girls in particular were subject to charges of disorderly conduct in class. The number of black girls charged with disorderly conduct increased by 60% between 2016 and 2019.

“I’ve heard that black girls are often perceived to be older and physically stronger than their white counterparts, whether that is or is not true,” Williams said.

Williams also spoke of interactions with black female students who shared their high school experiences with him.

“My students have told me that in high schools, black girls were more likely to be targeted as being dressed inappropriately,” Williams said. “They said that there were other girls in the schools dressed similarly, who were not targeted as quickly or directly.”

The increase in disorderly conduct charges against young black women was noticed by Monique Morris, an author and filmmaker who recently published a documentary titled, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.”

In an interview with Style Weekly, Morris said black girls are often targeted for their hairstyles, specifically for wearing headscarves in schools, which takes away their bodily autonomy.

“Look at the control and regulation of hair,” she said, “Girls are being told they can’t be who they are. It’s not even about a threat they could pose to the learning environment.”

These charges of misconduct are not specific to adolescence; the report found that 19% of the charges were filed against children ages 13 and younger.

According to the report, disorderly conduct charges can lead to court involvement, with disorderly conduct as the sole charge in two-thirds of the cases. The report contends that this sends children to court at a young age and has the potential to harm these children in the future if they ever end up in court again.

The full report from the Legal Aid Justice Center can be found at justice4all.org.

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