The disclosure last week that Black students are being suspended at a higher rate than other students in Portland’s schools is consistent with national trends showing Black students are more frequently subject to punitive measures than students of other races. 

But in the Portland school district, the suspension disparity is getting worse, according to Superintendent Xavier Botana.

A lack of suspension data gathered nationally during the pandemic makes it difficult to tell whether that, too, is part of a greater trend or if Portland is an outlier. However, the pattern of a consistent racial disparity in school discipline around the country is well documented, nationally and in Maine. And experts say that could have negative impacts on Black students far beyond their school years. 

At a school board workshop on discrimination and harassment in Portland’s middle schools that took place last Tuesday, Botana said the district has collected data showing that although Black students make up only 30 percent of the district’s student population, they accounted for 47 percent of suspensions in district middle schools in the 2021-2022 school year. Data shared Tuesday also showed that this racial disparity in student discipline in city schools has increased in recent years, most severely in the district’s middle schools. 

Students angry over what they said was a lack of action by school administration dealing with bullying over equity and race issues protested in May outside of Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

During the 2017-2018 school year, Black students accounted for 28 percent of middle school suspensions. This school year Black students accounted for 47 percent of district suspensions. 

Portland Public Schools has yet to respond to requests from the Press Herald for more details about this data and other information shared in last week’s presentation. The district said it will provide additional information on Monday. The district did not say why it could not release the information earlier. 


A national pattern of more frequent and extreme discipline for Black students compared to others was well documented in the few years before the pandemic. But after the pandemic arrived in 2020 and forced the nation’s students to pack up their desks and head home for years of remote and hybrid learning, the tracking data became sparse. The same is true for data on Maine compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.

But national, state-by-state and individual school data published prior to the pandemic clearly shows that Black students are punished at a disproportionately higher rate than their counterparts.  

A study published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in March of 2018 based U.S. Department of Education 2013-2014 school year data found Black K-12 students nationwide were over three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school compared to white students. The report also found that boys and students with disabilities were punished at a higher rate.  

Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows that in both Maine and the United States Black students were disproportionately punished during the 2017-2018 school year, the latest data available.

The Maine Department of Education previously told the Press Herald that it does not collect suspension data categorized by race, so it was unclear at this time how the U.S. Department of Education collected information on Maine student suspensions.

During the 2017-2018 school year, Black students in the United States accounted for 38.2 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions but made up only 15.1 percent of the United States’ student population. Black students in Maine accounted for 6.2 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions but made up only 3.8 percent of Maine’s overall student population.


Suspensions in the Portland school district during the 2017-2018 school year were not largely skewed toward any one group, according to the federal data. Black students made up 26 percent of the district population that year and accounted for 28.9 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 29.1 percent of in-school suspensions. White students made up 56 percent of the population and accounted for 49 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 58.2 percent of in-school suspensions.

The same cannot be said for the Lewiston Public School District, the state’s second largest. During the 2017-2018 school year Black students made up 35.4 percent of the student population and accounted for 54.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 58.9 percent of in-school suspensions. White students made up 55.4 percent of the population and accounted for 36.4 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 32.1 percent of in-school suspensions.

In South Portland public schools the same year, Black students made up 10.1 percent of the population and accounted for 11.2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 20.5 percent of in-school suspensions and white students made up 74.9 percent of the population and accounted for 62.1 of out-of-school suspensions and 53.3 percent of in-school suspensions.

It is unclear why the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights apparently stopped compiling this data after the 2017-2018 school year. The DOE did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. It is also unclear at this time whether Maine’s school districts are still individually keeping track of suspensions by race. A number of districts contacted by the Press Herald on Friday did not respond to questions about current data collection.

Experts say these patterns of increased discipline for certain marginalized groups are particularly troubling because of a connection between school suspensions and expulsions and negative outcomes later in life, including a greater risk of poor academic performance, dropping out, unemployment, arrest and incarceration.  

“School suspension and expulsion are important forms of punishment that disproportionately affect Black students, with long-term consequences for educational attainment and other indicators of wellbeing,” wrote the authors of a 2019, peer-reviewed study titled “Unpacking the Drivers of Racial Disparities in School Suspension and Expulsion,” published in the academic journal Social Forces.  


Collectively, student suspensions result in a significant amount of lost school time. During the 2017-2018 school year, students in the United States lost over 11 million days of school. During the same school year, Maine students lost almost 30,000 days of school. And those days without school are disproportionately taken by Black students because of a higher rate of suspensions.

There are a few theories at play that could explain the disparity in discipline across racial groups. Some believe that teacher bias is to blame. One 2019 study found teachers are more likely to see student behavior harmful if those students are Black and that Black students are more likely to receive harsher punishments than their counterparts. 

Others believe the imbalance in student punishment is more complicated.

“The underlying causes of the disparities in disciplinary outcomes are, in many ways, byproducts of larger issues in K-12 schooling,” wrote Richard Welsh, an assistant professor of education and policy at New York University, in a 2021 op-ed published in Education Week. He cited a “lack of workforce diversity, weak classroom management and shortfalls in the cultural capability of teachers,” as reasons behind the inequality.  

These issues of disparity in school discipline mirror issues with policing nationally and in Portland, where Black people have historically been more likely to be arrested than white people even though they make up a smaller share of the population. Those policing inequities have been attributed at least in part to systemic racism – historical, institutional and cultural practices and disadvantages that create an uneven playing field for people of different races.

The disparate punishment of Black students has not gone unnoticed by Portland students.


In May, middle school students from Lincoln and Lyman Moore protested what they said was consistently unfair treatment and student-to-student harassment toward students of color and apathy from teachers and administrators about racism within the schools. On Tuesday as Botana shared data showing that Black students receive more discipline than white students, he said that school district data backs up those student complaints.

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said he wasn’t shocked to see that systemic racism exists within the Portland school system.

“Systemic racism shows up in all aspects of society, from education to policing. It isn’t a surprise that the Portland school system says it has data substantiating the students’ experiences of discriminatory discipline. Racial disparities in discipline are well-documented in Maine schools,” said Kebede.

“But Maine schools have a duty under federal and state law to provide an educational setting that is free from discrimination.” 

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