African American students are more than three times as likely to be handed out-of-school suspensions as are white children, according to an extensive study released Tuesday by education researchers affiliated with UCLA. Nationwide, one out of six African American students is at risk of suspension every year, compared with one in 14 Hispanic students and one in 20 white students.
“Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School” is the latest report to highlight racial and ethnic disparities in student discipline and to call for alternatives to out-of-school suspensions. It includes a database of suspensions by race and ethnicity for districts and states.
“The findings in this study are deeply disturbing,” wrote Gary Orfield, a professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, in a foreword to the report. “Students who are barely maintaining a connection with their school often are pushed out, as if suspension were a treatment.”
Instead of addressing the underlying issues, out-of-school suspension leads to further disaffection and may contribute to the higher dropout rates among students with a disciplinary record. The report does not allege widespread discrimination; however, it says the data “should cast heavy doubt on assumptions that different suspension rates between groups merely reflect differences in behavior.” The report cites research in North Carolina that found that African American students were more likely than others to be suspended for first-time infractions including cell phone use, dress code infractions, disruptive behavior, and public displays of affection.
A number of bills before the Legislature would mandate or encourage districts to reduce suspensions or limit their length for “willful defiance” violations – discretionary, non-mandatory suspensions. In addition, recommendations for changes in policies for expulsion and suspension are expected to be a key component in the report of the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color, chaired by Assemblymember Sandré Swanson of Oakland, which will be released tomorrow preceding a hearing in Sacramento.
Using data released earlier this year by the federal Department of Education, researchers Daniel Losen and Jonathan Gillespie analyzed suspensions at 6,779 districts covering 85 percent of the nation’s K-12 students in 2009-10. They found large differences among states and among districts in student suspensions.
California’s 17.7 percent suspension rate of African American students was 0.6 percent higher than the national average; Illinois was highest at 25 percent, while the rates in Maryland and Arkansas, with significant minority populations, were 11 percent. California ranked 20th in the nation in terms of the gap between African American student suspensions (17.7 percent) and white suspensions (5.6 percent) – a difference of 12.2 percentage points. Illinois again ranked highest with a 21.3 percentage point gap. However, California ranked 6th in the nation in suspensions of black students with disabilities (27.8 percent in 2009-10), the subgroup of students with the greatest discipline problem.
A half-dozen California districts had the dubious distinction of being among the top 10 suspenders of students by race and ethnicity, although they probably warrant asterisks. Most are small districts that suspend unacceptably high rates of all students.
- Ravenswood City Elementary District’s 18.8 percent suspension rate of Asian Americans (primarily Pacific Islanders), who constitute 10 percent of the 3,403 students, was the highest in the nation. The district in San Mateo County also suspended 40 percent of its African American students and 12 percent of its Hispanics.
- Morongo Unified (9,090 students in San Bernardino County) ranked third, suspending 16.4 percent of Asian American students, about the same proportion of white and Hispanic students in the district, while Visalia Unified, which suspended a quarter of its 27,688 students at least once in 2009-10, according to the report, ranked fifth, suspending 15.7 percent of Asian Americans. Visalia, in Tulare County, was also third in the nation in suspensions of Native Americans: one in three.
- Burton Elementary District (4,083 students) in Tulare County* and Victor Valley Union High School District (15,186 students), in San Bernardino County, ranked 9th and 10th respectively, with 11.8 percent and 11.1 percent of Asian American students suspended. But both districts suspend 20 percent of students overall, and Burton also suspends an unusually high percentage of white students (22.4 percent of 1,126 white students); Victor Valley suspended 39 percent of black students; Asian American students comprise less than 2 percent of its students.
- Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County (4,969 students) ranked 4th nationally in suspending a whopping 60.5 percent of its 167 African American students (only 3 percent of the total student body). It also suspended 20 percent of all students, three times the national average.
- No California district was in the top 10 for suspension of Hispanic students, but Konocti Unified, in Lake County, and Brawley Elementary District, in Imperial County, were 9th and 10th for white student suspensions with 28.9 percent and 27.7 percent respectively. The rate for whites in Brawley (3,725 students) was three times the 9.1 percent for African Americans and more than quadruple the 6.4 percentage for Hispanics. Whites compromise the majority of students in Konocti, where one out of four students was suspended in 2009-10.
As for alternatives, the report cited the dramatic shift in Baltimore City public schools, where out-of-school suspensions fell by more than 50 percent under policies set in place by Superintendent Andres Alonso. Among the strategies recommended by the report: after-school detention, Saturday school, parent conferences, in-school suspension, and alternative programs such as restorative justice, in which the students face the victims of disruptive behavior. The report also suggests more training in classroom management for middle and high school teachers.
“We do know how to educate children successfully without relying on the ineffective, harmful practice of suspending the very students who often have the most to gain from staying in school,” the report says.
*an earlier version mistakenly placed the district in San Bernadino County