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New report highlights disproportionate school discipline for minorities

Suspensions put kids at risk for dropping out or worse

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Researchers analyzing a trove of national school discipline data have found that as black, disabled and English-as-a-second language students enter middle and high schools, their school suspension rates start soaring – a serious predicator for dropping out.  

Even one or two out-of-school suspensions are now linked by multiple studies to a greater risk of a student dropping out, suffering “failure” and being incarcerated, researchers for the University of California at Los Angeles Civil Rights Project said Monday at a Capitol Hill briefing.

“Perhaps the most disturbing finding is that nationally, on average, 36 percent of black male students with disabilities enrolled in middle and high schools were suspended at least once in (the) 2009-2010 (academic year),” researchers wrote in their report, “Out of School & Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools.”

The study also found that across the nation, one in every four African-American students in secondary schools was suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 academic year. One in every five students with disabilities and one in every five English-language learners was also suspended, out of school, at least once. That’s compared to only one in 16 white students without disabilities receiving at least one suspension over the same time period.  

For their report, researchers analyzed data on suspensions for the 2009-2010 school year gathered from schools for the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database.

The report identifies 10 districts with the largest number of “hot spot” secondary schools with relatively large numbers of suspensions.  A  large number is defined as having 25 percent or more of all students in one or more of any subgroup, such as students of a certain ethnicity or students with disabilities, getting suspended in one year.  

Chicago had the highest number – 82 -- of high-suspending hot pot secondary schools in the nation. Among those students identified at particular risk:  black males with disabilities in the Chicago Public Schools District, in Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools and in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  (Los Angeles Unified struck an agreement in 2011 with the U.S. Department of Education to embrace other methods of discipline considered more successful than removal of students.) 

 “There is something absolutely wrong,” when students are removed at these levels, said Dan Losen, an author of the analysis and director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.  

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High suspensions of disabled students are “just shocking when you think of the federal (disabled students) funds that have gone to support those schools, along with matching state funds,” said Diane Smith Howard, staff attorney for juvenile justice and education issues for National Disability Rights Network. She spoke on a conference call about the report’s findings.

Forty years ago, in 1972-73, according to the report, about 12 percent of black secondary students were suspended, out of school, at least once. Today that figure has reached 24 percent for all black students nationally.

Researchers also found that that the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District contained schools with similar student demographics that reported far lower rates of suspensions. That suggested, Losen said, that educational leaders at those individual campuses could provide help colleagues with “viable alternatives” to manage classrooms.

As the Center for Public Integrity has reported, the Los Angeles Unified School District also shows that students at some middle and high school campuses are also issued exceptionally high numbers of citations from school police for misbehavior, including fights and disruption by junior high students ticketed under the criminal label of “disturbing the peace.”

Losen said that high suspension rates are “an early warning system” at particular schools that should suggest school administrators need to make changes in how they manage  behavior.

The suspensions data the report contains, Losen said, could be used to predict “drop-out factories” because middle schools with high suspension rates often are the source of students who go on to attend high schools with high suspension and drop-out rates.

“This is not a game of gotcha,” Losen said of the findings. He said parents, district leaders and administrators can use the Civil Rights Project’s studies and analyses to find schools within a district that might provide answers in terms of initiatives that help keep students engaged in school and improve behavior. 

 The report released Monday notes research indicating that being suspended even once in ninth grade is associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out. “The high number of students suspended, as presented in this report, should be of grave concern to all parents, educators, taxpayers and policymakers,” Losen and his colleagues wrote. 

Researchers have posted data for 26,000 middle and high schools that can be searched online. The investigation was supported, in part, by Atlantic Philanthropies and the California Endowment. (The Center for Public Integrity receives funding for independent reporting from the California Endowment.)

At the Capitol briefing, Losen and others involved in research on suspension suggested that federal grants to schools could be made contingent upon efforts to reduce suspensions or employ them as a last resort. Losen said researchers are not suggesting that suspensions never be imposed. 

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Ivory Toldson, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Howard University, said Monday that school administrators sometimes engage in “bait and switch” when asked to respond to why they have high suspension rates. “They talk about the kid who stabbed a kid,” he said. But most suspensions, he said, are for unspecified low-level misbehavior that can be addressed in other ways.

Researchers also said that schools often feel the pressure to meet testing standards and might be tempted to remove lower-performing and troubled students.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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1 comment on this story

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1466 comments
Apr 9, 2013, 1:38 pm
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Well, I don’t know how things go in the three cities cited in these studies. But, speaking of Tucson schools, I can tell you a big part of the problem…or at least when I was in school.

I was physically assaulted many, many times when I was in school. Whenever I would defend myself, I would get suspended along with the person who assaulted me. Even now in my late 30’s I still don’t understand how that is fair or just.

Whenever I would argue my case, I was always told “tell a teacher”. Well, in my case, I had…many times. Besides, I can’t visualize a scenario where the bully will be willing to postpone his assault until such a time where you can tell a teacher about it. And, whenever I did tell a teacher about it, there were never any consequences anyway.

My point…if it happened to me, it can happen to others and probably does. So, now whenever I hear about a student being suspended for fighting, I take it with a grain of salt because chances are about 50% that the kid was just doing what needed to be done to defend himself and protect his own physical safety.

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