School Climate & Safety

Study: Schools Suspend Black Students Three Times More Often Than Whites

By Nirvi Shah & Lesli A. Maxwell — August 21, 2012 5 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, concluded.

For their report, they used 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.

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

“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 seeks to improve educational equity for all students and 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.”

Discipline Disparities

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

The researchers decry not only disparities in how suspensions are parceled out, but also their sheer numbers. For their report, the director of the Civil Rights Project’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, Daniel J. Losen, and research associate Jonathan Gilliespie analyzed 3 million out-of-school 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 earlier this month.

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

The report provides the first large-scale analysis of suspension rates in public schools across all states, using the latest collection of civil rights data, which includes information that accounts for 85 percent of all public school students in the country.

The rates of suspension look starkest at the district level.

Of the 6,800 districts studied, 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 were 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,” district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

Fort Wayne is implementing culturally responsive positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, an approach that involves increasingly intensive interventions to change students’ behavior. “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,” she said.

Latino Students

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 were suspended at least once. The district also ranks ninth for suspending African-Americans: 53 percent of black students were suspended at least once. Hartford, with about 21,000 students, is almost entirely a minority district. Latinos constitute 51 percent of enrollment, while African-Americans make up about 40 percent of enrollment.

Illinois had the worst record of 47 states analyzed for the size of 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. 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 federal office for civil rights.

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. There is, however, evidence that African-American students are punished more severely than other students for minor offenses.

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.

Likewise, 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.

But changing policies and practices or banning suspensions isn’t universally popular. Sometimes, suspensions are necessary, 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,” she said, “suspension can be an appropriate choice, particularly if a student’s behavior is beyond the capacity of a school to address.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study: Schools Suspend Black Students Three Times More Often Than Whites

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