School Climate & Safety

Researchers Sound Alarm Over Black Student Suspensions

By Nirvi Shah & Lesli A. Maxwell — August 07, 2012 10 min read
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Nearly one in six African-American students was suspended from school during the 2009-10 academic year, more than three times the rate of their white peers, a new analysis of federal education data has found.

That compares with about one in 20 white students, researchers at the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, based at the University of California, Los Angeles, conclude. They use data collected from about half of all school districts in the nation for that year by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

And for black children with disabilities, the rate was even higher: One in four such students was suspended at least once that year.

In some districts, as many as one out of every two black students was suspended.

“These numbers show clear and consistent racial and ethnic disparities in suspensions across the country,” said John H. Jackson, the president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, based in Cambridge, Mass., which supports equity in schooling for all students and efforts to improve outcomes for African-American boys. “We are not providing [these students] a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. Any entity not serious about addressing this becomes a co-conspirator in the demise of these children.”

Suspension Gaps

Black students are suspended at a higher rate than white students in 39 of the 47 states studied. But the gap between black and white students’ suspension rates varies widely from state to state.

State Black-White Percentage-Point Gap
IL 21.3
MO 18.4
CT 18.1
TN 16.4
MI 15.9
WI* 15.3
MN 15.3
DE 14.4
NV 14.4
OH 14.0
NE 14.0
IN 13.6
AR 13.2
SC 13.2
PA 13.2
KS 12.8
OK 12.5
TX 12.3
GA 12.2
CA 12.1
VA 11.6
MS 11.2
IA 10.9
AL 10.7
NC 10.2
WV 9.9
CO 9.7
KY 9.3
NJ 8.7
RI 8.6
LA 8.3
AZ 7.8
WA 7.8
OR 7.6
MA 7.1
AK 6.4
MD* 6.1
NH 5.3
SD 4.9
UT 4.2
ME 4.1
WY 3.8
VT 2.2
ND 2.0
NM 1.7
ID 1.0
MT -0.3

*MD and WI each had a large district removed from the sample so the size depicted on the right is no longer accurate and their estimates should be reviewed with caution.

NOTES: Florida and Hawaii were not analyzed in the report. Errors in Florida’s enrollment figures led to the exclusion of 217,000 suspensions in that state. Hawaii’s data “contains serious flaws” the researchers said.

New York City was excluded because the district is disputing its data with the office for civil rights, so that led to the removal of New York.

The District of Columbia was not included in the analysis as a state, but a district.

SOURCE: Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles

Maisie Chin, the executive director of Community Asset Development Re-defining Education, or CADRE, in Los Angeles, helped form Dignity in Schools, a New York City-based group focused on eradicating zero-tolerance discipline policies and school “push out” of students deemed difficult to deal with.

The real value of the data this report provides, she said, is that it helps the public see suspensions and the disproportionate ways in which they are handed out as a systemic problem.

“We’re thrilled that it’s coming out on a national level,” Ms. Chin said.

The researchers decry not only disparities in how suspensions are parceled out, but also their sheer numbers.

In the report, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion From School,” the director of the Civil Rights Project’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, Daniel J. Losen, and research associate Jonathan Gilliespie analyze the 3 million suspensions reported to the federal Education Department as part of the biennial collection of civil rights data.

“That’s about the number of children it would take to fill every seat in every major league baseball park and every [National Football League] stadium in America, combined,” they write in the report, released Tuesday.

Mr. Losen said when he was a young teacher, he frequently sent students to the principal’s office for misbehaving. With training and time, he learned to work on students’ behavior in his own classroom, keeping students from missing class.

“The bottom line is, we have to reject this frequent use of suspension. We have to reject this as the status quo,” he said, especially considering that many suspensions are not for major offenses, but minor infractions. “There are alternatives.”

Racial Gaps

This latest collection of civil rights data was the most expansive to date, including information that accounts for 85 percent of all public school students in the country.

Florida and Hawaii were excluded because of errors in the reported data. The study also does not provide suspension estimates for New York state because New York City’s data on suspensions are being reviewed by the office for civil rights.

This report provides the first large-scale analysis of suspension rates in public schools across all states. Previous research has flagged individual states’ records on suspension and expulsion.

The rates of suspension look starkest at the district level.

Of the nearly 6,800 districts studied by the Civil Rights Project researchers, 839 suspended at least 10 percent of their students at least once. In some districts, including Chicago; Memphis, Tenn.; Columbus, Ohio; and Henrico County, Va., 18 percent or more of the students enrolled spent time out of school as a punishment. Some 200 districts sent more than 20 percent of students away at one point or another during the school year.

The Pontiac, Mich., city school system, where about 64 percent of the 5,300 students are black, ranked first for suspending the largest percentage of black students—for every 100 black students, 68 were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year, the analysis found.

In Fort Wayne, Ind., however, where only 25 percent of about 32,000 district students are black, 56 out of every 100 black students was suspended at least once.

“I am surprised that we would rank that high, but like a lot of school districts, this is obviously something we are looking at and something we have been addressing over the last couple of years,” said Krista Stockman, a spokeswoman for the Fort Wayne district.

The district is implementing culturally responsive positive behavioral supports and interventions, or PBIS, an approach to discipline that involves increasingly intensive interventions to change students’ behavior, she said. “We certainly realize that when kids come into our schools, they often don’t come with the same background and home experiences that our teachers and our staff may have come from.”

The district in Hartford, Conn., has the highest rate of suspensions for Latino students at 44.2 percent, according to the report, meaning 44 out of every 100 Latino students was suspended at least once. The district also ranks ninth for suspending African-Americans, where 53 percent of all black students were suspended at least once. Hartford, with about 21,000 students, is almost entirely a minority district. Latinos represent the largest group, with 51 percent, while African-Americans make up about 40 percent of enrollment.

Illinois, in fact, had the worst record of 47 states analyzed for the gap between the rates of suspensions for black students and their white peers, at 21.3 percentage points, followed by Missouri and Connecticut, where the black-white gaps were just over 18 percentage points.

A report last year from the Council of State Governments Justice Center in Bethesda, Md., and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University found that more than half of students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades.

Of the students tracked by the Texas study’s researchers from 7th grade through one year past when they were scheduled to be seniors, 75 percent of black students were expelled or suspended, compared with 50 percent of white students. In addition, 75 percent of students with disabilities were suspended or expelled, compared with 55 percent of students without a disability.

The problem with suspensions is simple, yet devastating, the authors say: The students—many of them already at risk for low performance or dropping out—are not in class, which leads to a litany of negative consequences.

“Suspensions matter because they are among the leading indicators of whether a child will drop out of school and because out-of-school suspension increases a child’s risk for future incarceration,” they write.

The study from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA recommends that states and districts be required to report suspension data, by race, each year, and that suspension rates be used to measure states’ and districts’ education performance.

The authors also want more federal enforcement of civil rights laws to address the disparities in discipline they and others have found. And federal efforts should invest more in systemic improvements to approaches to school discipline and teacher training in classroom management, they argue.

Some may hypothesize that students of color are more likely to exhibit inappropriate behavior in the classroom, said Russell Skiba, a professor at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University, in Bloomington, but research doesn’t support that.

But there is evidence that African-American students are punished more severely than other students for minor infractions.

Policy Changes

Some districts are taking steps to change suspension and expulsion policies, including Baltimore, which has been working for years on alternatives to suspension. Officials there call the strategies ineffective and say such practices often punish students for multiple minor infractions.

Other efforts are in earlier stages. Earlier this year, the Chicago school board voted to eliminate automatic 10-day suspensions for the worst school-based offenses, the publication Catalyst Chicago reported. Principals can still order five-day suspensions, but they have to justify additional time out of school.

And in places where change isn’t happening on its own, civil rights groups are pushing for it.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed civil rights complaints with the federal Education Department against five Florida districts for what it says have been discriminatory disciplinary practices against black students, compared with their white peers.

Stephanie Langer, a staff attorney in SPLC’s Florida office, said the complaints focus on a range of disciplinary practices, including out-of-school suspension, expulsion, alternative placements, and school-based arrests. The districts, she said, enroll relatively modest percentages of African-Americans, but the numbers of black students who are targeted with tough disciplinary practices are “egregious.”

The five Florida districts are Bay, Escambia, Flagler, Okaloosa, and Suwannee counties, where, she said, SPLC found that individual administrators were often violating their district’s own policies when meting out discipline for relatively minor infractions.

Ms. Langer said a combination of zero tolerance policies and giving “administrators and principals unfettered discretion to act as they choose in the moment” was behind the high rates of discipline for black students.

Aware of a growing chorus of voices criticizing the disproportionate rates of punishment, some states are also taking steps to change their policies.

For example, the Maryland board of education has been working on policy changes for more than a year to curb suspensions and expulsions, state education department spokesman William Reinhard said.

“The belief of the board was ... too many kids are spending too much time out of the classroom, where they don’t get the educational services they deserve under Maryland law,” Mr. Reinhard said.

“They end up being dropouts or not progressing the way they should,” he continued. “And there was some concern about students from particular ethnic backgrounds being overrepresented in the suspension data. This is their way to say, ‘Hey, we can do better than this.’ ”

The Maryland board has given preliminary approval to a policy that would eliminate zero-tolerance discipline policies with automatic consequences and require schools to adopt an approach to discipline that focuses on improving students’ behavior, not just meting out punishment. Suspensions and expulsions would be allowed only as a last resort.

But changing policies and practices or banning suspensions isn’t universally popular. Local school officials in Maryland, for example, told the state board about their concerns with the proposed policy shift.

And sometimes, suspensions are simply a necessity, said Sasha Pudelski, the government-affairs manager for the American Association of School Administrators in Alexandria, Va.

“We support evidence-based alternatives to out-of-school suspension and expulsions, but when the safety of other students, teachers, and school employees is at risk, suspension can be an appropriate choice, particularly if a student’s behavior is beyond the capacity of a school to address,” she said. The group does support examining policies and practices when disproportionate numbers of one group of students are represented by suspension and expulsion data.

“Where school or school district policies and state laws increase the number of out-of-school suspensions,” Ms. Pudelski said, “administrators, school boards, and state policymakers must look for alternatives.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week


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