Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Suspension, Expulsion Data Cast Harsh Light on Some Schools

By Nirvi Shah & Michele McNeil — January 04, 2013 4 min read

An Education Week analysis of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education illustrates the wide variation in how schools use out-of-school suspension and expulsion to discipline students. It also calls into question the validity of the data for some schools.

For the 2009-10 school year, the Education Department’s office for civil rights collected data for more than 72,000 schools and nearly 7,000 school districts about school discipline practices, along with information on a variety of other data points, including students’ access to advanced courses, student retention, and teacher salaries and attendance rates.

Education Week found that at some schools, the proportion of students suspended out of school or expelled was 100 percent or very close to that. The analysis, which looked specifically at data submitted by schools with 300 students or more—69 percent of schools nationwide have an enrollment of that size, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—shows that hundreds of schools suspended more than half their students without disabilities in 2009-10. Such results indicate either high rates of disciplinary actions or substantial inaccuracies in the data reported to the federal government.

Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe says it’s still possible for districts to revise their data. He notes that the agency has checks in place to ensure that significant data errors are corrected before superintendents certify the data.

“Ultimately, the [information] is self-reported data. The quality of the data depends on accurate collection and reporting by participating districts,” Briscoe says.

The schools in the Education Department database where large proportions of students were suspended or expelled are a diverse set—small and large, urban and small-town, mostly black and mostly white. Northwestern High School in the Maple district in Wisconsin, which the analysis found the highest expulsion rate, is 95 percent white. Girard Middle School in the Dothan city district in Alabama, which the analysis found had the highest out-of-school suspension rate, is 71 percent black.

Each school identified in Education Week‘s analysis as being in the top 20 for the proportion of students without disabilities suspended out of school or expelled had multiple opportunities to respond to its placement before publication. In some cases, principals said they could not comment or asked district leaders to respond for them.

Responses Vary

Schools and districts that responded had a mix of reactions. Some were incredulous about what the data—which districts reported and certified as accurate—revealed. The school-level data have been publicly available on the Education Department’s website, at ocrdata.ed.gov, for months.

For example, Hartford, Conn., schools spokesman David Medina, responding on behalf of two schools that were among those with the highest rates of out-of-school suspension in the data set, says his district discovered that the information submitted to the office for civil rights was flawed after a previous Education Week story about another analysis of the data was published last August.

The district says it has tried to correct its information with the OCR since then. The Education Department has worked with a number of other districts on revising data.

“The person who submitted the data, and who no longer works for the district, misread the filing instructions and provided the statistics in a way that assumed that every incidence of suspension was a separate individual,” Medina says.

On the other hand, in Richmond County, Ga., where a number of schools landed on the same list of schools with high rates of suspension, Assistant Principal Cameron Henry of the Academy of Richmond County readily acknowledges overuse of out-of-school suspensions at his school.

The school is working on changing staff attitudes toward discipline and instituting Positive Behavioral Supports and Intervention, or PBIS, an approach that teaches and models good behavior for students.

“If your only tool is a discipline referral and your idea of classroom management is, '[Students] should behave when they come, and if they don’t, it’s not my problem,’ you don’t have any tools,” Henry says. This school year, the school in Augusta, Ga., is on track to record a lower number of out-of-school suspensions than in previous school years.

In Nevada’s Clark County district, where two schools appeared on the suspensions list, the district reiterated what it said when the data were first released.

“The district acknowledges that there is room for improvement,” spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said at the time. The district has already put in place plans at several schools where minorities are in the majority—Del Sol High School and J. Harold Brinley Middle School are predominantly Hispanic—to improve student engagement and support for students and families.

At Thornton Middle School in the Adams 12 Five Star school system in Colorado, the 255 expulsions listed for the 2009-10 school year can’t be correct, says Kevin West, the district’s director of intervention. In a single school year, the entire 44,000-student district has never recorded so many expulsions, he says.

District records show just 10 suspensions for Thornton that year, and West points out that the entire state of Colorado has been focused on changing discipline practices that lead to students’ missing school.

At Craig-Houghton Elementary, also in the Richmond County, Ga., district and on Education Week‘s suspensions list, Principal Sophia Cogle says she has been working to improve climate at her school since taking the helm in August 2009. The school has adopted a PBIS approach and added several tutoring and mentoring programs.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.

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