Black elementary school children between the ages of 5 and 9 are more likely to be disciplined, suspended, or expelled compared to white students with similar behaviour traits, according to a paper by researchers at Brown and Princeton Universities.

Teacher and parent reports, school records, and survey data on children who attended elementary school from 2003 to 2009 were analyzed for the study, with a focus on students between the ages of five and nine.

The records suggest that teachers’ different treatment of black and white students was responsible for 46% of the racial gap in expulsions and suspensions in the group studied.

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About 21% of the gap, according to the paper, is due to different teaching styles used at predominantly black and predominantly white schools, and 9% of the gap is attributed to “differences in student behaviour.”

Jayanti Owens, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of sociology at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown, says she wanted to test the idea that teachers and principals punish black and white students differently, even when they’re in the same school.

“The idea that you can have two kids of different races misbehaving in similar ways and receiving different forms of punishment — one gets a slap on the wrist, say, and the other gets suspended — is a really important thing to understand socially,” she said in a statement.

“Subconsciously, we all have racial biases in different ways. This is one way in which those biases are manifesting in the classroom.”

The findings show the racial gap was prominent for children in the same school, with black students 10 to 19 percentage points more likely to face expulsion or suspension than their comparably-behaved white peers.

“Not only were black children more likely to be suspended, but these racial differences were happening in the same schools,” Owens said.

“It shows that the categories teachers use as reasons for punishment, like ‘defiance,’ ‘disrespect’ and ‘noncompliance,’ are ripe for racial discrimination. What does it mean to be disrespectful? It would be easy for a teacher to read the behaviour of a kid as disrespectful when it may not have been intended that way.”

Owens says she hopes the research will showcase the need for bias training in the U.S. school system.

The full paper can be found on Social Forces.