The Civil Rights Project (Proyecto Derechos Civiles) released a study in March demonstrating that minority students and students with disabilities are suspended at a far higher rate than their non-disabled or non-minority peers. At first blush, this is not news. Other researchers have already documented these disproportionate rates, which have even been discussed in this blog. But the new study, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” is different for two primary reasons. First, the authors, Daniel Losen and Jonathan Gillespie, use data from the Civil Rights Data Collection survey from the Department of Education, thereby providing the most comprehensive and exhaustive review of what is happening in our nation’s schools. These DOE data are from 7000 schools districts and represent 85% of our nation’s students. Second, the Civil Rights Project does not solely focus on the problem states or the problem districts that are suspending students at such horrific rates. The study also provides the data for those states and districts that are not engaging in high suspension rates. These districts have figured out how to keep students in school and engage them in learning. These are the districts from which we need to learn.
So what exactly did the Civil Rights Project find? In the 2009-2010 school year, more than 3 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade were suspended. As graphically illustrated by the study authors, this is enough students to fill every seat at every major league ball park and NFL stadium in the country. That’s a lot of students to be missing school. And exactly who is being suspended? According to the data, one out of every six (17%) Black students nationally has been suspended compared to one in 20 (5%) of white students. For students of all racial groups with disabilities, 13% are suspended each year (the specific racial groups for which data are included are American Indian/Alaska native, Asian American, Latino, Black, and White). But the students who are most likely to be suspended are Black students with disabilities, of whom one out of every four is suspended at least once each year.
The Civil Rights Project went further to examine these rates by state and district. The state that suspends the highest number of Black students is Illinois, which suspends 25% of Blacks, giving it the largest racial gap of all states (21.3%). Illinois also suspended nearly 42% of all Black students with disabilities.
Overall, almost 839 of the 6779 school districts examined suspended at least 10% of their students. Almost 200 districts suspended more than 20% of their students. Of the largest districts, rates of suspensions for male students of color with disabilities exceeded 33%. Of specific districts, the Pontiac City School District suspended 67% of its Black students; the Henrico County Public Schools suspended close to 92% of its Black male students with disabilities at least once.
These are bleak figures, but there is a flip side to the coin. Not every state nor every district is engaging in high suspension rates. Whereas the study showed that the Black-white percentage gap in suspensions exceeded 15% in five states—IL, MO, CT, TN, and MI—in five states the gap was less than 3%--VT, ND, NM, ID, and MT. North Dakota suspended only 2.2% of its students in the same time period that South Carolina suspended 12.7% of its students. Montana suspended more whites than Blacks (3.8% vs. 3.4%).
The study authors defined a “low suspending district” as one which suspended less than 3% of students, which was the national average for whites in the 1970s. Based on their criteria for district size (greater than 1000 students) with 10 or more students who are Black, the authors determined that 1437 districts suspended less than 3% of their Black students. Similarly, 649 districts, using the same criteria for low suspension, suspended less than 3% of students with disabilities.
The authors of the Civil Rights Project caution that their results do not automatically prove civil rights violations. The study itself does not examine the reasons for the suspensions. However, there is clear research evidence that demonstrates that minorities are disciplined much more harshly for minor offenses. Subsequently, the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed civil rights complaints against five Florida school districts claiming that their disciplinary policies are discriminatory (incidentally, Florida was not included in the Civil Rights Project analysis due to questions about the validity of the data from the state).
Other states and districts are already recognizing that their policies, including zero tolerance policies, are leading to these disparities and are on their own already making changes as they look for alternatives to suspending students except for in the most extreme situations. One of the programs being explored by many states and districts is “Positive Behavioral Supports,” which the National Association of School Psychologists has deemed an empirically validated approach that can replace challenging behaviors with “pro-social skills.” Positive behavioral supports can be targeted at an entire school, not just the student, and according to NASP are particularly effective for students with disabilities.
Positive behavioral supports have been used in Connecticut, which passed legislation in 2007 designed to sharply restrict the use of exclusionary discipline. Although the law would not be implemented until the summer of 2010, Connecticut began introducing positive behavioral support programs almost immediately, resulting in reducing suspensions from 7.1% in 2006-2007 to 5.1% in 2008-2009. Similar legislation has been passed in Maryland.
The Baltimore school system, which suspended 26,000 students in 2004, has instituted changes that have reduced the number of suspensions to less than 10,000 in 2010. According to their Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Andres Alonso, to send a child out of a classroom is to “sacrifice” authority and communicate that “the classroom was not the place for this child.” Dr. Alonso revised the code of conduct to eliminate suspensions for minor offenses. Additionally, building principals need permission to suspend a student for more than five days. Those students who are given long-term suspensions or expulsions are placed in an alternative school, symbolically housed within the district’s administrative office, to reinforce to these students their importance to the district and that they are not “disposable.”
The Chicago Public Schools similarly is altering its Code of Student Conduct by eliminating an automatic 10-day suspension for even the most serious of offenses (principals may still apply for up to a 10-day suspension). The goal of the revised code is to be “corrective, instructive, and restorative,” according to the CPS Director of Youth Development and Positive Behavior Support. To this end, CPS is applying a restorative justice approach, which is designed to teach the student how to repair damage in a constructive manner rather than applying a punitive approach. (Incidentally, the Chicago Public Schools suspended 72.5% of Black males with disabilities at least once.)
The Civil Rights Project study is a strong step in the right direction of rectifying the use of disproportionate disciplinary action. By providing their data spreadsheets on their website (1) to allow quick comparisons among districts, the Civil Rights Project is enabling Federal and state policymakers; school districts, educators, the media, and parents to look hard and critically at the data for their individual districts and states. Change can only come about when educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders recognize the gross disparity in how discipline is meted out among different groups.