How College Admissions Are Affected By Racially Biased School Discipline

Police presence in schools, zero tolerance policies and biases in favor of white students put students of color at a disadvantage when it comes to school discipline. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JIM MONE
Police presence in schools, zero tolerance policies and biases in favor of white students put students of color at a disadvantage when it comes to school discipline. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JIM MONE

College admissions take a crucial factor into account that could be creating enormous racial bias, but it’s not grades or extracurricular activities or even SAT scores. It’s a student’s disciplinary record.

A new survey by The Center for Community Alternatives shows that 46 percent of colleges gather information on disciplinary records on their individual application materials and 27 percent collect that information from Common Applications. Only 27 percent of the 408 colleges and universities that responded did not use that information.

The inclusion of disciplinary records in college admissions is important, in part, because the extent to which teachers discipline students often depends on the students’ race. Numerous studies show that students of color are likely to be punished more severely than white students. Children as young as 6 years-old have been arrested by police officers after throwing tantrums in the classroom and eighth grade students have even been threatened by officers for minor incidents.

Racial biases become clearer in situations that involve less severe, more subjective offenses, said Max Marchitello, policy analyst for pre-K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress.


“Being suspended or expelled really increases the likelihood you’ll drop out. It’s a huge problem and a lot of studies show that the disparity, the disproportionality, only happens with subjective offenses. So the idea that college admissions could deny someone on a purely subjective question seems kind of crazy,” Marchitello said. “It’s only with mandatory actions that you see parity, where, for example, someone does drugs in the bathroom or brings a gun to school. Only in those situations do you see what you expect to see, a one-to-one proportionality between enrollment and offense. Otherwise, once it’s up to individual adult actors, you see pretty dramatic race biases.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, black and Hispanic students made up more than 70 percent of school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement.

The report shows a lack of an actual formal, written policy on how to treat disciplinary information in admissions policies, with 75 percent of schools reporting that they don’t have a written policy. Yet, 89 percent of colleges said it influences admissions decision-making.

Some of the most common factors in the automatic denial of an application with a disciplinary history were school-based arrests, assault resulting in injury, bullying, distributing illegal drugs and possession of a weapon. However, advocates say the combination of school resource officers and the popularity of zero tolerance policies, which discipline students severely for relatively minor offenses, may be to blame for increased discipline of students of color.

Police presence in schools increased after the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Policing Services (COPS) started the “COPS in Schools” grant program, which was launched in 1999 after the Columbine High School shootings. The number of school resource officers in public schools rose from 9,400 in 1997 to 14,337 in 2003 and the percentage of students who reported seeing security guards and assigned police officers in schools increased from 54 percent in 1999 to 69 percent in 2007, according to a 2011 Justice Quarterly analysis by Chongmin Na and Denise Gottfredson.


Zero tolerance disciplinary policies disproportionately affects black students, according to a Harvard University study by Stephen Hoffman, which was published in 2012. At some schools, officers issue tickets to children. At South Bend, Indiana schools, where black students compose 34 percent of enrollment, black students received more than seven out of 10 citations issued during the past few school years. In Texas, students have been sent to court for offenses such as fights on the school bus. Officials in Connecticut began screening cases where students were in ticketed in schools after kids went to court for drinking soda and “dressing improperly.”

A 2013 Congressional Research Service report by Nathan James and Gail McCallion cast some doubt on the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies and school resource officers. The discussion of police involvement in schools was renewed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The report read, “Research suggests that the presence of [school resource officers] might result in more children being involved in the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses, and this, in turn, can result in other negative consequences, such as higher rates of suspension or a greater likelihood of dropping-out of school.”

One of the other major problems with colleges using a student’s disciplinary history in admissions is that schools’ definitions of a severe infraction vary widely depending on the district, the report from The Center for Community Alternatives notes. Some schools say that students pushing each other while in line qualifies as “an extremely violent act,” and others classify weapons possession as “not at all violent.”

However, many students have no idea that their disciplinary records are being released to schools or that colleges are rejecting their application due to said history, according to the survey. Only 21 percent of the schools surveyed would automatically notify the student that their disciplinary history was the reason for the denial. Most of the time, however schools require students ask why they received a rejection, and even though 75 percent of schools had an appeals process in case students were rejected for that reason, less than half were told by admissions that they even had the option.

Common applications ask students to answer truthfully on all questions so when a student checks the box for a history of disciplinary infractions, they have an opportunity to answer why they received an infraction and specify what kind of infraction it was later in the application. If they simply didn’t arrive to class on time or brought soda to class, they should make that clear in the application, said Deena Maerowitz, an educational consultant who helps guide students though admissions applications and former associate director of admissions at Columbia University Business School. When Maerowitz advises students with a disciplinary history, she advises them to explain how it has helped their personal growth and what they have learned from the situation.


This post has been updated to reflect Marchitello’s correct title.