In response to student resistance, educators and school administration resort to disciplinary intervention because misbehavior “is understood by authorities to be destructive to the norm” (Toshalis, 2015, p.204). Decades of data from public schools show that minority students are disproportionately disciplined more than White students (Morris, 2005). One study, in particular, finds that the typical suspended or expelled student is more likely to be male, from a lower socioeconomic group, in special education, lower achieving, and non-White (Gregory and Weinstein, 2008). Students of color are disproportionately represented in referrals, detentions, suspensions, and expulsions not because they misbehave more than others.
In fact, Russell Skiba (2002) and his colleagues compared disciplinary interventions involving Black and White students. The researchers found that there was no evidence that racial disparities in school punishment could be explained by higher rates of African American misbehavior. Instead, Skiba and his colleagues discovered that Black students were more likely to be referred to the office for more “subjective reasons” such as talking back to the teacher, dress code violations, excessive noise, and loitering, receiving harsher punishments than White students.
If higher discipline rates are not due to greater misbehavior, why are cultural minorities disproportionately disciplined? Morris’s (2005) ethnographic study conducted at Matthews Middle School finds that school administration and educators reproduce race, class, and gender inequality through bodily discipline. Through bodily discipline, the school officials heavily regulate styles of dress and behavior, visible aspects of their cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984), that are considered oppositional to the mainstream school culture. For instance, one Latina student’s experience exemplifies this sentiment (Valenzuela, 1999).
She was scolded by school administration for her “ganglike clothing;” however, she was just dressing like the members of her low-income, Latino community. Valenzuela (1999) explains, “Far from trying to make a statement, she is doing her best not to stand out in her neighborhood.”
The uniform dress code at Matthews (navy blue, red, or white shirts with khaki shorts or pants) was implemented to decrease gang activity and make student poverty less visible. In Matthew’s “Standard Mode of Dress,” baggy and oversized clothes, most commonly associated with street wear, were emphasized as not being acceptable. Despite the supposed well-intentioned reasons behind the dress code, there was much strife between teachers and students regarding the dress code.
In particular, educators at Matthews Middle School targeted Latino and Black male students’ manner of dressing and behavior as extremely “threatening” and often reserved punitive, harsh forms of discipline for these students (Morris, 2005). For instance, when Latino students refused to adhere to the dress code such as not tucking in their shirt, teachers at Matthews expressed that they viewed them as exotic and untrustworthy and connected them to gang affiliation because of their resistance (Morris, 2005). Bodily display, especially clothing choice, influence how educators view and treat racial and ethnic minority students, further marginalizing and suppressing their identity in the classroom.