Abstract: Understanding the Disproportional Suspension of Black Girls: A Case for Data Triangulation (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Understanding the Disproportional Suspension of Black Girls: A Case for Data Triangulation

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Andrea Joseph, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
Background: During the 2015-2016 academic year, Black girls represented 8% of students enrolled yet accounted for 14% of students suspended and 10% of students expelled (USDOE, 2018). School-wide interventions such as restorative practices have been utilized to improve relational bonds and address inequitable discipline practices. However, disproportionality often persists with limited empirical data to explain why. This mixed-methods study used critical race methodology to explore the racialized and gendered persistence of disproportionality by asking, what are the within-gender discipline trends and practices at a school implementing restorative justice practices? Suspension data, observational data, semi-structured-interviews, site artifacts and critical social theory were used to inform how identity markers, specifically race and gender, inform Black girl’s disciplinary experiences. The author underscores the centrality of data triangulation and critical race research for social work science and social action.

Methods: Data were collected over 9-months at a racially diverse high school (n = 1,518) implementing restorative justice practices to reduce school suspensions. Within-gender risk-ratios were calculated to examine suspension risk differences across race. Critical race ethnography and intersectionality was used to examine behavior in the context of race and gender social constructions. Thus classroom observations (n = 37), interviews (n = 11), and school-based artifacts (n=3) were analyzed to inform disproportional school suspension rates. Inductive and deductive coding were used during initial coding stages; subsequently, pattern coding was used to generate meta-codes that drew meaning (Saldaña, 2013) between behaviors, policies and discipline outcomes.

Findings: Findings indicate that Black females (n =287) represented 19% of enrollment yet were 3.2 times more likely to be suspended than all other girls (n = 434). This disparity was greater than Black males (n =334) who accounted for 22% of enrollment and were 2.1 times more likely to be suspended than all other males (n = 463). Detention hall observations indicate that students of color, and Black girls in particular were consistently represented in the bi-weekly detention halls. Black girls attended detention for behaviors regularly exhibited across all students throughout the school day. This included, tardiness, roaming the hallways, cell phone use, and classroom disruption. Despite how commonplace these behaviors were, White girls were least represented in the detention hall. Additionally, the presence of a detention-to-suspension pipeline placed Black girls at greater risk. Namely, policy required that students who missed an after-school detention would receive an automatic one-day suspension. Furthermore, the practice of suspending a student for talking or having a visible cell phone during detention contributed to their disproportional suspension.

Conclusions/Implications: Within-gender analyses highlight the discipline risk experienced by Black girls; but it is limited in its ability to explain this trend. It is the use of observational data that makes the near invisibility of White girls from detention hall an indication of their under-surveillance. Data triangulation and intersectionality, markers of social work science for social action, underscore how constructs on race, gender and class make Black girls hyper-visible and subject to the “disciplinary gaze”. Researchers should construct datasets that capture both the visible and “invisible” discipline trends.