Equity & Diversity

New Look at Suspension Data Pinpoints Disparities

By Evie Blad & Christina A. Samuels — March 03, 2015 5 min read
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A detailed exploration of state- and local-level data on suspensions—broken down by elementary and secondary levels and into student subpopulations—shows both the progress some districts have made in reducing suspensions and pinpoints dramatic disparities where more work needs to be done, according to an advocacy group.

The study, released Feb. 23 by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, allows users to compare states and districts with one another and eliminates the masking effect that can come from averaging the relatively low rates of suspension in elementary schools and the higher rates in secondary schools.

“It is critically important to note that suspension rates, and the size of the racial gap, vary dramatically from one district to the next,” the report says.

Out-of-School Suspension Rates 2011-12

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed federal discipline data to find trends among student populations and show differences between elementary and secondary students.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Center for Civil Rights Remedies

The report’s authors analyzed 2011-12 discipline data from every school and district in the country. The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights issued the data last year. In the time period covered, 10.1 percent of secondary students and 2.6 percent of elementary students were suspended, the authors found.

The report comes a little more than a year after the U.S. departments of Education and Justice provided first-of-its-kind civil rights guidance on school discipline that called on schools to reduce reliance on suspensions. The guidance, criticized by some Republican lawmakers, also puts schools on notice that they could violate federal civil rights laws if their discipline data show that policies or practices have a “disparate impact” on students of one racial or ethnic group. The release of that guidance added intensity to efforts, already in place in many states and districts, to rethink disciplinary policies.

State Rankings

There are broad gaps between suspension rates for different student groups and among states and districts.

And the varying suspension rates that researchers uncovered—sometimes in neighboring districts with similar demographics—further support previous research that shows it’s often the attitude of educational leaders, not the behavior of students, that predicts high suspension rates, said Daniel J. Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and one of the report’s authors.

“This tells you again that we can reject the status quo, and not just based on academic studies or isolated studies of individual districts,” Mr. Losen said.

The report ranks states based on suspension rates, rates for students with disabilities, and gaps between suspension rates for white and black students.

Because out-of-school suspension rates are three to five times higher at the secondary level for students in each racial and ethnic group, dividing the data between elementary and secondary schools exposes where the needs are most severe—at the high school level, researchers said.

The state with the highest suspension rates for all students at both the elementary and secondary levels is Florida, which suspended 5.1 percent of all elementary students and 19 percent of all secondary students in 2011-12, the report says. Florida also had the highest suspension rate among secondary-level students with disabilities, 37 percent, the report says.

That’s significantly higher than North Dakota, which had the lowest suspension rate for students with disabilities at 5 percent, the lowest rate for elementary students at 0.5 percent, and the lowest rate for secondary students at 3 percent, says the report, which does not include Hawaii and New York in its rankings because of “data-reporting errors.”

Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida education department, said in an email that “decisions regarding discipline policies as well as student suspensions are made at the district level.” She deferred to individual districts for any information on their suspension policies.

Mr. Losen also said that because the federal data are tracked and reported by schools, there may be some inaccuracies.

School, District Breakdown

Using different scales for elementary and secondary levels, the report’s authors classified districts as “high-suspending” and “low-suspending” and tracked progress in narrowing gaps between discipline rates for students in different racial and ethnic groups.

At the secondary level, any school or district that suspended 25 percent or more of any major racial/ethnic group’s secondary enrollment was labeled “high-suspending,” and any school that suspended 10 percent or less of every major racial/ethnic group’s secondary enrollment was deemed “lower-suspending, " the report says. At the elementary level, researchers lowered those thresholds to 10 percent and 2 percent. Twenty-four percent of secondary schools met the high-suspending threshold, and 38 percent could be considered lower-suspending, the report says. On the elementary level, 37 percent of studied schools were lower-suspending, and just 17 percent were high-suspending.

Students With Disabilities

The report found particularly high suspension rates for students who belong to more than one protected class, such as black students with disabilities.

Among secondary students with disabilities, black males were suspended at the highest rate, at 33.8 percent. Black female students with disabilities were also suspended at a high rate, 22.5 percent. Among white secondary students with disabilities, the suspension rate was 16.2 percent for males and 7.3 percent for females.

The 5,700-student Riverview Gardens, Mo., district was cited in the report for suspending 85 percent of its secondary students with disabilities in 2011-12, compared with 49 percent of its secondary students overall.

Bonita Jamison, the assistant superintendent of student-support services for the district, noted that Riverview Gardens has seen a major staff turnover in the past two years, bringing in a new superintendent and administrative leadership.

The district has also implemented several new programs in that time, including setting up staff teams that meet regularly to discuss plans for students who are showing behavioral concerns.

“Our aim is to be proactive,” she said, and the district has seen lower suspension rates, though she was not able to provide direct numbers to compare.

A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Deeper Look at Suspension Data Pinpoints Big Disparities

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