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From Rehabilitation to Punishment: The Institutionalization of Suspension Policies in Post-World War II New York City Schools


The disproportionate suspension and criminalization of black students, referred to in the literature as "disproportionality" "over-representation" and in a nod to the achievement gap, as the "discipline gap," has become the subject of increased concern and analysis in recent years. In this dissertation, I apply concepts from Historical Institutionalism to the formation of exclusionary and criminalizing disciplinary policies in post-war New York City. First, I identify and illuminate how actors, in framing the problem of school disorder, deployed competing logics of discipline. Next I explore how the context, in particular tensions regarding school integration, influenced the framing of school disorder and contributed to the rising salience of logics that individualized school disorder and decontextualized it from the conditions of racism. Finally, I examine how school personnel engaged with and deployed these logics in their participation in the expansion and institutionalization of punitive, exclusionary and criminalizing disciplinary policies. This analysis demonstrates that punitive and criminalizing disciplinary policies were never neutral, but rather emerged out of a context of fraught racial politics that favored policies and actors that individualized, criminalized and racialized school disorder. Ultimately I demonstrate that the policies under-girding contemporary disproportionality in discipline were contested, contingent with pressure for integration and supported by educators and school personnel. This complicates existing explanations for the discipline gap that conceptualize the disproportionate punishment, exclusion and criminalization of black students as “unintended” and “unconscious.” It also highlights the organizational and ideological forces embedded in the institutional environment of schools that may pose challenges to reform efforts.

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