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school suspensions
Tanya E. Coke

Despite a sharp decline in school suspensions, stubborn inequities remain in how discipline is administered in school.

That’s the bottom line on the U.S. Department of Education’s release this week of new data from the 2013-14 school year on how the nation’s schools measure up in protecting students’ right to an equal education. The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) now requires every school district in the country to report a wealth of data on educational opportunity every two years.

The good news? School suspensions are down a full 20 percent over the previous two years. More recent data from the nation’s largest school districts suggests that national rates of suspension have likely declined even further since 2013-14. Out-of-school suspensions dropped a whopping 53 percent in Los Angeles Public Schools between 2013 and 2015. In New York City, suspensions declined by 17 percent and school arrests by 27 percent between 2014 and 2015.

Educators are clearly heeding warnings from researchers that suspension does grave harm to student outcomes.

Studies show that a single suspension in the ninth grade correlates with a doubling of the drop out rate, and a tripling of the chance that a child will end up in the juvenile or criminal justice system.  Fewer suspensions mean more instructional time and fewer opportunities for unsupervised kids to get into trouble.

In kindergarten through the 12th grade, black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as are their white counterparts.

Now, the bad news. While suspensions overall have dropped, disparities by race and disability are deep and persistent:

Black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to be suspended as are white preschool students.

In kindergarten through the 12th grade, black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as are their white counterparts. Black students also are nearly twice as likely to be expelled — with no educational services — as are white students.

Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely as non-disabled students to be suspended in K-12 settings. They are 12 percent of the student population, but over two-thirds of those who are subjected to seclusion or restraint.

Why are these disparities so deep, and so persistent? Several likely reasons appear in the CRDC data itself.

First, schools with high numbers of black and brown students have unacceptably high numbers of inexperienced teachers. According to the CRDC, 11 percent of black students, 9 percent of Latino students and 7 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students attend schools where more than 20 percent of instructional staff are first year teachers, compared to 5 percent of white students.  Unfortunately, neither professional schools of education nor alternative route programs like Teach for America do enough to teach classroom management. This oversight leads inexperienced teachers to over rely on office referrals or suspensions.

Related: How one innovative school district has closed gaps on harder Common Core tests

Second, too many schools have their priorities backward when it comes to staffing and support.  According to the new CRDC data, more than 20 percent of U.S. high schools lack a school counselor. More than 1.6 million students attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer, but not a school counselor. These gaps are cause for alarm at a time when rising poverty and homelessness are bringing increasingly stressed children to school. It is also easier to bounce an agitated kid from school when there is no one to help him or staff process a conflict, a family tragedy or just a bad day.

Third, teachers and administrators, like all Americans, are affected by racial stereotype and unconscious bias. Emerging research on implicit bias suggests that none of us are immune from media images that reinforce stereotypes of black and brown young people as more dangerous and culpable than white children.

So what can schools do? First, they should use the CRDC and their own data as a blueprint for corrective action. Administrators must take a hard look at which offenses, school buildings and classrooms are producing the greatest disparities. Often, subjective offenses like “defiance” and “disregard of authority” leave room for bias and interpretation and produce high rates of racial disparity. Also, discipline rates often vary widely between schools handling the same student populations, because they are heavily dependent on the disciplinary philosophy of the school leader.

Second, administrators should pay attention to school climate. When staff work to build rapport and relationships, and students feel there are adults in the building they trust, racial disparities in school exclusion decline, while school safety and academic achievement rise.

Research also suggests that when the school staff and leaders inculcate an ethos of mutual respect through strategies like restorative practices reduce discipline disparities. For all of these reasons, school districts and state education departments would do well to include school climate as one of five optional measurements for school performance under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

So, kudos to school leaders for reducing out-of-school suspensions. Time now to double down on racial disparity.

Tanya E. Coke is a distinguished lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City of New York, where she studies school-justice issues.

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