School Climate & Safety

New Analysis Bolsters Case Against Suspension, Researchers Say

By Nirvi Shah — April 08, 2013 6 min read
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The results of a new analysis of out-of-school-suspension data that show staggering rates of the punishment’s use at some schools are even more reason to rethink that common method of disciplining students, researchers said Monday.

One of the findings researchers from the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles, labeled “most disturbing” was that 36 percent of all black male students with disabilities were suspended out of school during the 2009-10 school year.

For students with disabilities, it’s easy to blame a lack of resources as the reason for such a high rate of suspension, said Diane Smith Howard, a staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network, but that’s not a complete answer.

“Some districts do a fantastic job of meeting the needs of these kids. There are great practices that work, that allow kids to stay in school and not disturb the learning of others,” she said. But it boils down to “do you think of the student as one of your own? If you do, you make the effort to keep him in school. It is amazing what an underresourced district can do if it has the right attitude.”

Researchers analyzed data from about 85 percent of all public schools in the country gathered by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights. It builds on a series of studies on the suspension in recent years that show disparities in how the punishment is used and some stark differences in the frequency of its use at schools with similar demographics, even within a district.

Researchers also found that since the early 1970s, the rate of out-of-school suspension for black middle and high school students has more than doubled, while for white students, it’s been nearly flat. Back then, about 12 percent of black secondary students were suspended out of school; for the 2009-10 school year, the rate was 24.3 percent. Forty years ago, about 6 percent of white students were disciplined the same way, compared with 7.1 percent three years ago.

“Given the recent research showing that being suspended even once in 9th grade is associated with a twofold increase in the likelihood of dropping out, from 16 percent for those not suspended to 32 percent for those suspended just once,” the researchers write, “the high number of students suspended, as presented in this report, should be of grave concern to all parents, educators, taxpayers, and policymakers.”

What was promising about the results, researchers said, was that while at some schools in some districts, rates are eye-poppingly high, that isn’t the case universally.

For example, at nearly 7,000 of the nation’s secondary schools where there were at least 50 members of a racial subgroup, English-learners, or students with disabilities, the suspension rate for at least one of those subgroups met or exceeded 25 percent. But at another 7,700 secondary schools, the suspension rate was 10 percent or less for any subgroup that was at least 10 students in size.

“The answers are right here, right before us. There’s a lot that districts can do” besides disciplining students by suspending them, said Daniel J. Losen, one of the researchers. He is director of the Civil Rights Project’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies. “We’re not saying never ever suspend out of school. Explore all the other alternatives. Use suspension as a last resort.”

He named Chicago and Los Angeles as examples of school systems where many high schools have high rates of suspension—but many don’t, an indication that some schools are using behavior and discipline strategies within those systems that could benefit other district schools. The researchers labeled schools where any one group of students was suspended at a rate of 25 percent or more as a “hotspot.”

“In fact,” the report says, “Los Angeles has more lower-suspending secondary schools—81—than high-suspending hotspots—54.”

Losen and his colleague Tia Elena Martinez offered a number of policy recommendations in response to their findings, including making data about suspension rates, disaggregated by race, gender, disability, and English-learner status, publicly available. They say parents and the media should ask for such data if they aren’t already available. Schools should invest in classroom-management training for teachers, while state and federal policymakers should invest in research on evidence-based interventions and systemic improvements in approaches to school discipline.

The research builds on a previous analysis Losen did with the federal data that found that among all grade levels, schools suspend black students at three times the rate of white students. There is a movement to address the use of out-of-school suspension and expulsion as punishment nationwide.

Other highlights from “Out of School and Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools":

  • The likelihood that any student will be suspended out of school increases from about 2.4 percent in elementary school to 11 percent in middle school.
  • When that increase in the risk of being suspended between school levels is broken down by race, the data show an increased risk of 18 percentage points for blacks and about 5 percentage points for whites.
  • Latinos had a nearly 11-percentage-point increase in the risk of suspension between elementary and secondary school.
  • English-language learners experienced a similar increase in suspension rates: an increase of 10 percentage points—from 1.2 percent to 11.3 percent—from elementary school to middle school.
  • High suspension rates in middle and high schools have increased dramatically over time, especially for black students, to the extent that about one in four black secondary students, and nearly one in three black middle school males, were suspended at least once in 2009-10.
  • About 18 percent of black female secondary students were suspended, a rate higher than for secondary school males from all other racial groups.
  • One in five secondary school students with disabilities was suspended, about three times the rate for students without disabilities.

In addition to analyzing the results globally, researchers looked at individual schools and districts included in the OCR data. The federal office collected information from every district in the country with at least 3,000 students, as well as many smaller districts, for a total of 6,835 school districts. The study’s authors found that:

  • In 323 districts, the suspension risk for all secondary students was 25 percent or higher.
  • At 2,624 secondary schools, 25 percent or more of all students were suspended, and at 519 of those schools, the rate of suspension was equal to or greater than half the total student body.
  • In two districts, there were high schools with both very high and very low rates of suspension of students of any one subgroup—Los Angeles and Clark County, Nev. “This suggests that successful alternative approaches are already in place in many districts,” the researchers say.

An Education Week analysis of the federal data found that at some schools, the proportion of students suspended out of school at least once or expelled during the 2009-10 school year was 100 percent or very close to that.

“There are well-documented methods and trainings for teachers that can create safe and effective learning environments in our middle and high schools without relying on the frequent suspension of students who are at the greatest risk for academic failure,” Losen and Martinez write. “The public should reject the high-suspending status quo and take measures to ensure that the approach to challenging adolescent behavior is age-appropriate and not counterproductive.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.