The likelihood of a student being suspended from school jumps from about 2.4 percent in elementary school to 11 percent in middle school, according to a new analysis by The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. When broken down by race, the numbers show the risk of suspension increases by 18 points for African American students and 11 points for Latino students, and only about 5 points for white students.

“Kids are getting pushed off track to graduation,” said Daniel J. Losen, co-author with Tia Elena Martinez of Out of School & Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools. The report relies on 2009-10 data from more than 26,000 U.S. middle and high schools. More than 2 million students were suspended during that academic year.

An earlier report by The Civil Rights Project looked at the same data, but did not separate that data by school level. Including elementary school data “mitigates what is happening at the secondary level,” Losen said.

An EdSource survey of 315 California school districts found that the suspensions at the middle school level also last much longer. The survey, published in September 2012, found that 42 percent of middle school students were suspended for three or more days, while only 10 percent of elementary level pupils were suspended for that length of time.

The Civil Rights Project report urges alternative practices that keep students in school and get to the root of their misbehavior. Often the misbehavior prompting the suspension is minor, such as disrupting class, tardiness or violations of the dress code, the report said. Out-of-school suspensions, which alienate students from school and from their teachers, should be saved for serious disruptions or for students who have ignored repeated warnings, advocates say.

Students with disabilities identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also faced higher out-of-school suspension rates, the Civil Rights Project reported. The deepest disparity occurs when all risk factors are combined. Across the nation, 36 percent of black male middle and high school students with disabilities were suspended at least once in 2009-10.

The report also looked at “hot spots” – schools within districts with suspension rates at 25 percent or higher – as well as at schools with low rates – 10 percent or less for all subgroups. Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district, qualified in both areas – ranking fourth with the number of “hot spot” middle and high schools (54), but ranking first in the number of secondary schools (81) with low suspension rates. San Diego Unified ranked second, with 39 secondary schools in the lower-suspending category.

“When you see these extremes within the same district, that shows there are alternatives that work,” Losen said. “With 81 schools with lower suspension rates, that shows there are a lot of folks doing something right and a lot of others who could learn from them.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of Los Angeles community organizations is working to “end harsh school discipline” in Los Angeles schools by launching a citywide effort to pass a School Climate Bill of Rights, which advocates describe as a board resolution that would enact alternative approaches to school discipline. The campaign by the Brothers Son Selves initiative at Liberty Hill Foundation is kicking off April 11 with a number of speakers, including LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, at Augustus Hawkins High School in Los Angeles.

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