School Suspensions: A Failure to Educate

While policy makers and politicians debate school accountability and point fingers at various tools and causes, it is remarkable that the continuing upward trend to suspend ever more students, especially students of color and those with disabilities, continues unabated, with a complete absence of accountability.  Earlier this week, UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, published a comprehensive report on both the overuse of suspensions in our schools, and the wide disparities revealing severe discrimination regarding who receives suspensions.

Key findings from this report include the following troubling data:

  • Latinos had a nearly 11 percentage point increase in suspensions between elementary school and secondary schools, which is particularly surprising since the Latino elementary school suspension rate is similar to the White suspension rate at the elementary level.
  • Black female secondary students were suspended at a higher rate (18.3%) than secondary male students from all other racial/ethnic groups.
  • The rate of suspensions for secondary students with disabilities (19.3%) was nearly triple that of non-disabled students (6.6%).
  • The highest rate of suspensions were for Black male students with disabilities, a shocking 36%.
  • 323 districts around the country had secondary school suspension rates of 25% or higher.
  • 2,624 schools had secondary suspension rates of at least 25%.
  • 519 schools had secondary suspension rates of at least 50%.
  • Chicago led the nation in the number of schools that suspended at least 25% of any subgroup, with 82 of its schools doing so.  Chicago’s overall suspension rate was a horrific 27.5% which is even more troubling when examining the disparity of its 41.6% suspension rate for Black students compared to only 10.6% of its white students.

Anyone who cares about the education of our nation’s children must seriously question why neither the federal government, nor the states, factor suspension rates into any school accountability formula.  Even from a pure academic standpoint, it goes without saying that the massive number of children who are suspended are generally not receiving the benefit of any education when they are out of school.

Moreover, anyone who cares about the achievement gap should be especially concerned about the disparities which this suspension data reveals.  This is especially true because most suspensions are for minor infractions, such as violating dress codes, use of cell phones, tardiness and truancy, loitering and disruption, so it simply cannot be argued that the high use of suspensions is keeping our nation’s schools safer.

Fortunately, UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies also published, A Summary of New Research: Closing the Discipline Gap: Research to Policy, which analyzes and consolidates the results of 16 new research papers on this topic in search of a solution.  Key findings of this summary are:

  • Out of school suspensions have serious, disparate and negative academic outcomes including increasing the number of dropouts. One study analyzing Florida 9th graders found that the drop out rate increased from 16% to 32% for students suspended only once, and jumped to 42% for those suspended twice.
  • It is clear that suspension rates are correlated with intentional decisions made by school leaders.

There is good news in this Research Summary and if we are serious about improving our educational system leading to better educated citizens, these findings must be implemented at the federal, state and local level, as follows:

  • Chicago’s safest schools have strong teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships, resulting in low suspension rates.
  • Teacher training and improving student engagement lead to lower suspension rates.
  • Large district-wide investments in social-emotional learning resulted in safer schools than investments in high-security hardware and personnel, such as metal detectors and school police officers.
  • Non-punitive threat assessment protocols reduce suspensions for all groups.
  • As I discussed in Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline, the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) can be effective in reducing suspensions, but only if PBIS is aligned with school codes of conduct and pays attention to subgroups of students.
  • Restorative justice is a viable strategy  to keep students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

To sum up, if federal, state, and local policy makers are truly serious about improving educational outcomes, they must insist that local schools develop strategies that keep students in school, instead of issuing rampant suspensions.  Moreover, they must provide the policy and budgetary leadership to do so.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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