By Kathryn Baron | TOPED Blog | http://bit.ly/nvDqA6
John Fensterwald contributed to this article.
10/06/11 • Congress ever reauthorizes No Child Left Behind, civil rights groups want indicators of school success to include how they mete out punishment. School suspensions have soared over the years, and so has the disparity by race, ethnicity, and disability, according to a new report.
The study, Discipline policies, successful schools, and racial justice, analyzes decades of data from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. Author Daniel Losen, with the UCLA Civil Rights Project, found that black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. Hispanic and Native American students are also suspended at higher rates. The report also shows that black and Hispanic students receive harsher punishments than do white students both for similar misdeeds and for minor infractions, such as dress code and cell phone violations.
Data from North Carolina show that Black students are twice as likely to be suspended for minor violations than white students. (Discipline Policies, Successful Schools and Racial Justice, National Education Policy Center. Click to enlarge.)
Gary Orfield, director of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, places some of the fault with the recent version of school reform that’s about cracking down on slackers and being tougher on students. “When we give schools sweeping power to use drastic discipline without giving them good training and positive alternatives, it isn’t surprising that it is being used very disproportionately against boys and young men of color,” said Orfield.
The release of the report coincides with a series of events this week in 13 states, including California, aimed at drawing attention to the disproportionate rates of what critics call school pushout.
California is generally in line with the rest of the nation is suspension numbers by race and ethnicity, although suspensions are used far more frequently here for all students across the board. In 2006, the most recent data available, 7.5 percent of all students – and 10.4 percent of boys – were suspended at least once in California. That’s compared with 6.8 percent of all students nationwide – and 9.1 percent of boys.
But California schools are hardly innocent of racial differences in punishment. Suspensions of African American boys, by far, were the most disproportionate in California – 22.6 percent of the state’s 255,000 African American male students were suspended in 2006. Even though they comprise just 4 percent of the state’s students, they accounted for 12 percent of the total suspensions. Nationwide, the numbers aren’t quite as disproportionate but are still disturbing: Black male students comprise 8.7 percent of all students and 23.7 percent of suspensions.
The situation is similar for Hispanic boys. They make up 25 percent of all California students, but comprise 36 percent of suspensions. To put it in raw numbers, of the state’s 1.57 million Hispanic boys, 172,000 were suspended in 2006.
Suspensions are epidemic in some middle schools across America. In 2010, more than one-fourth of African American male middle school students (28.3 percent) were suspended, compared with 16.3 percent of Hispanic males and 10 percent of white males. In 15 of the nation's largest districts, at least 30 percent of African American male students were suspended. (Office of Civil Rights data; click to enlarge)
The concern over suspensions is that they can lead to increased dropout rates, according to several studies, including one by the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara. So state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson used the national week of action to urge school districts to set discipline policies that “recognize that all children benefit from being in school and consider appropriate alternatives to suspensions and expulsions such as teaching positive behavior and employing intervention techniques to prevent misbehavior in the classroom.”
Torlakson isn’t suggesting that schools take a laissez-faire attitude toward disruptive or flat out bad behavior. Orfield agrees and cautions that schools must be safe places and that means punishing serious violence. “But we must do everything possible to assure that there is no discrimination,” he said, “and that the central emphasis is on successfully including in rather than pushing out students who need help, deserve an education, and should not be sent down the school-to-jail pipeline. School officials need to address these findings and reform their practices.”
Even before the release of the latest data, activists had been focusing attention on out-of-school suspensions and their relationship to dropout rates and student performance. A partnership of the nonprofit law firms Public Counsel and Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., and CADRE, a South L.A.-based parent group, had pressed local districts in Los Angeles Unified to set goals of cutting suspensions in half during the current school year while increasing the use of alternatives to suspension.