PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WLNE) -- When Lindsay Girouard sends her kids to school, she knows it's a given that if they misbehave they'll likely face consequences.

"Everything has to be fair, no matter what the situation, race or age is," said Girouard. 

But a new study from Brown University in collaboration with Princeton finds the reality is that discipline in many classrooms is anything but fair--with punishments often unequal and cutting along racial lines.

Looking at 5,000 elementary students across the country, researchers concluded African-American students are four times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. Those numbers, researchers tell us, held true in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. 

"It was extraordinarily disturbing and I really didn't want to believe it," said Jayanti Owens, assistant sociology professor at Brown, who helped run the study.

Prof. Owens says the ripple effect of this bias can be tremendous.

"There's higher rates of school dropout, as well as greater interaction with the criminal justice system later on," said Owens.

"Obviously that's not okay," said Girouard.

Girouard's kids attend school in Cumberland. She found these numbers alarming. 

"As far as my own personal experience with my children, I haven't seen any unfair treatment or anything, so far," said Girouard. "But if they are doing that, it needs to be stopped."

So what should local schools do? First, Prof. Owens cautions against rushing to blame teachers.

"We all have our own biases in various ways," said Owens.

She suggests schools introduce alternatives to suspension, but stresses each district should have the power to decide what solution works for them. 

"Is this going to be a matter of instituting a sort of bias training, or some sort of in-service program that allows teachers to think about how they are perceiving student behavior? Is it about creating a program to increase trust between students and teachers so these problems don't occur in the first place? Is it about reforming the school discipline system?" said Owens.

"It should be a no-brainer to have a workshop for something like this," said Girouard.

Prof. Owens says it's crucial that parents advocate for their kids.

"I think the takeaway for parents of color is to not be afraid to go to teachers and to school administrators and to ask for more information about what exactly is going on, how they can be involved in helping their students," said Owens.

Prof. Owens says the study will next look at whether the race of the teacher has an impact on how different students will be disciplined, but she tells ABC6 other research suggests suspension rates for black students are lower, when the teacher is also African-American. 

© WLNE-TV / ABC6 2019