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Although suspensions have long been used as a means of reprimanding unruly elementary and secondary school students across America, research and data compiled by the Department of Education maintain that suspensions are more frequently leveled against minority students and those with disabilities, often compounding preexisting issues with diminished opportunities to excel in the classroom.

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A report released earlier this year by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA found that during the 2011-2012 school year, 3.5 million K-12 public school students in America were suspended from school at least once. And the net total of these suspensions is even more staggering, with students missing almost 18 million days of class time because of disciplinary measures. Further disaggregation of this same data indicates a wide disparity in the use of suspensions according to students’ race, with African-American secondary school students receiving suspensions at more than three times the rate of their white peers.

The Racial Discipline Gap

While the rate and disparity of suspensions in public schools sound alarming, concerns about their disproportionate impact on black students have long been voiced in scholarly and government circles.

The “racial discipline gap,” as it is often called, has been documented since an influential report by the Children’s Defense Fund, “School Suspensions: Are They Helping Children?,” first identified the racial disparity of suspension rates in 1975. In the 40 years since the report’s release, national organizations, schools, educators, administrators, and other stakeholders have all shined a light on the disparity, with little demonstrative success to show for it. If anything, data shows that the problem has markedly increased since it was first identified. At the time of the report’s release, K-12 suspension rates hovered around 3 percent of white students and 6 percent of black students; today, white suspension rates are at 5 percent, while black suspension rates are now at 16 percent.

Studies have shown that a history of disciplinary referrals at school are a predictor of future involvement and incarceration in the prison system, often referred to as a “school-to-prison” pipeline that uses punitive disciplinary measures as a means of marginalizing students from the greater school community. Many school districts are now criminalizing behavioral outbursts through the use of zero tolerance policies, which have contributed to an increase in suspension rates over the past several decades.

African-American elementary and secondary school students, who are collectively suspended at significantly higher rates than their white peers, are more susceptible to experiencing these kinds of negative outcomes. Low-income students who live in high-crime neighborhoods, regardless of race, are highly susceptible to increased suspension rates. But while socioeconomic status is a factor in student suspension rates, researchers have also presented a correlation between African-American students of all incomes and demographic categories and increased rates of suspensions, most notably for incidents where white students receive less severe punishments for the same offenses.

It’s clear that race plays a definitive role in whether or not a student will be suspended in the first place, more so than family income and structure, neighborhood, and even the initial behavioral infraction. Perception of wrongdoing based on skin color—or “colorism”—has also been documented as a growing factor in the suspension rates of many African-American students. A study by researchers at Villanova University and the University of Iowa found that African-American females with darker skin tones were suspended at three times the rate of their peers with lighter skin, even after controlling for variables such as previous disciplinary issues, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement. The findings were consistent with other studies that found that skin tone discrimination dramatically affected the educational attainment and incomes of both African-American males and females.

Whether it’s an issue of racial perception, or perhaps other mitigating factors that lead to this imbalance, unnecessarily punitive punishments affect students’ continued success in school. Students who are suspended even once are at a dramatically greater risk of dropping out, repeating a grade, or being sucked into the nexus of the criminal justice system and the school-to-prison pipeline. And while zero tolerance policies evolved in response to high-profile school shootings, such as at Columbine, the reality is that most suspensions today are a result of noncompliance or defiance issues rather than weapon possession or violent behavior. And because African-American students are suspended at higher rates than their white peers, researchers have also drawn a connection between racial achievement gaps and racial discipline gaps in schools. It’s hard for students to learn when they’re being forcibly excluded from an academic setting without any structural support—one of the points that has led many education experts to question the overall effectiveness of both in-school and out-of-school suspensions as a practice in the first place.

Alternative Disciplinary Strategies

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included provisions prohibiting discrimination in education, including Title IV, which prohibited discrimination “on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin by public elementary and secondary schools and public institutions of higher learning,” and Title VI, which prohibits discrimination “based on race, color, or national origin by recipients of federal financial assistance.”

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice are responsible for enforcing Title VI, with the OCR conducting the Civil Rights Data Collection to examine equity data from America’s public schools. The OCR’s data collection has identified such a disparate impact in the rates of suspensions that the DOJ and the DOE issued formal guidelines in a January 2014 letter to school administrators on how public schools should address racial disparities in school discipline. The letter, which signified the first joint effort by the DOE and DOJ to combat the racial biases of suspensions, urges schools and districts to examine their suspension rates and disciplinary practices and identify alternative measures for closing the racial discipline gap.

And yet, identifying alternative programs and approaches to school disciplinary issues has proved to be a thorny issue for many districts. Teachers are often forced to instantaneously discipline or confront unruly students while also maintaining a classroom full of other less disruptive students. Often the punishment falls to the school administrators, for whom it’s often more practical to suspend a student for chronic misbehavior—a frequent symptom of other underlying social or emotional problems—than to dig into the root cause of why they’re acting out.

This presents a catch-22 scenario, whereby the most vulnerable students are often subjected to the harshest punishments and thereby face higher risks of prison time, dropping out, or academic failure. But keeping chronically disruptive students in a class with others who are engaged and want to better themselves academically only undermines the effectiveness of the teacher and the ability of other students to fully learn. That’s why some school districts are beginning to further explore alternative approaches and measures that have shown promise in managing students’ behavioral outbursts.

In a 2011 study, “The Relationship of School Structure and Support to Suspension Rates for Black and White High School Students,” authors Anne Gregory, Dewey Cornell, and Xitao Fan found a correlation between “authoritative” schools and a lower racial discipline gap, as well as lower overall suspension rates. Teachers who were both supportive and demanding of their students, characteristics the authors associated with authoritative parenting, helped create a better overall school environment that had a positive school-wide impact. Schools that maintained a more apathetic or ambivalent climate, with lowered expectations of students and less student support provided by teachers and administrators, were more vulnerable to higher suspension rates and a greater racial discipline gap.

One of the most prominent behavioral prevention methods used in public schools today is the school-wide positive behavioral support program. The SWPBS programs, as they’re known, evolved out of several amendments that were added in 1997 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The amendments stressed the concepts of positive behavioral supports for at-risk students that advocated increased academic expectations, a larger connection to the greater school community, and oversight by a team of educators working with students. The programs evolved on a school-by-school basis based on local issues and approaches, often relying on component parts that stress a leadership team of educators, a school-wide strategy for implementing behavioral guidelines for classrooms and hallways, and—most importantly—alternative disciplinary measures that focus on students who act out by implementing a more counseling-based approach.

While scholars continue to quantify the impact of SWPBS and other similar programs, early signs have been largely favorable. Over the course of a four-year case study published in Professional School Counseling, researchers Russ Curtis, Jill W. Van Horne, Phyllis Robertson, and Meagan Karvonen analyzed the effectiveness of many of the central tenets of SWPBS programs and found a direct correlation between program implementation and a decrease in behavioral issues, as well as less wasted school and class time. While the authors stressed that further research was needed, they documented a 47 to 67 percent decrease in the number of behavioral referrals and suspensions in the examined school.

The success of SWPBS programs has spurred more than 500 schools across the country to implement these strategies. And while the programs vary in successfulness from school to school, data suggests that it can decrease suspension rates anywhere from 20 to 60 percent when properly implemented. The programs have proved so successful that representatives in Congress even attempted to request that more funding be allotted to developing these programs further. A senate bill, sponsored by then Senator Barack Obama, was introduced in 2007 “to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to allow State educational agencies, local educational agencies, and schools to increase implementation of early intervention services, particularly school-wide positive behavior supports.” Both the senate bill and a related house bill died in Congress before coming to a vote. Another bipartisan version, H.R. 3165, was introduced in the House in 2011 but suffered a similar fate. Nevertheless, a lack of further funding has not stopped many schools from successfully implementing these programs through multiyear efforts.

Another wildly successful approach to stymieing the school-to-prison pipeline has been the incorporation of restorative policies and practices into schools. Known as restorative justice programs, they seek to address behavioral and disciplinary issues through mediation and personal accountability rather than punitive punishments. Not only have restorative justice programs decreased suspension rates in schools, but they’ve also helped foster more positive classroom and school-wide environments. Many researchers consider it to be a positive approach that affectively deals with disciplinary issues while also positively adding to the overall school climate.

Most of the strategies that decrease suspensions also have a net benefit for the greater school community. Some school districts are even taking these programs further, placing limits on the kinds of infractions for which students can be suspended. Starting in 2013, Los Angeles Unified School District—the second largest school district in the nation—banned the use of suspensions for students guilty of “willful defiance” violations and instead emphasized conflict resolution and educator leadership teams as an alternative approach.

But while these types of authoritative, support-heavy approaches work in premise—and indeed, research seems to indicate across-school benefits—budget cuts, overflowing classrooms, and other issues such as diminished budgets, less creative classes, and a stricter adherence to standardized testing limit the amount of authority, structure, and unique support that educators can offer to their students on an individual basis. And the reality is the schools that can benefit the most from climate overhauls tend to be poorer urban schools that rely on fewer local sources of revenue to bolster their coffers.

It also becomes difficult to enact any meaningful changes without first addressing the underlying biases that lead to such a racial disparity in suspensions. Data already shows that black students are often punished more harshly based on their skin tone than their initial infraction, and often at greater rates than their white peers for similar behavioral issues. While the implementation of alternative disciplinary measures may help mitigate the harmful impact of suspensions on African-American students, they fail to fully address the underlying causes of this imbalance. Whether it’s ingrained or unintentional prejudice, or perhaps even something more nefarious, disciplinary biases will continue to impact minority students at higher rates if they remain unaddressed.

We’ve come a long way in the 40 years since the CDF’s report first documented the racial discipline gap, but a growing awareness of the problem—even with the successes of alternative strategies in some schools showing that change is indeed possible—has done little to stem the rising tide of school suspensions, especially among minority students. In order to limit the harmful effects of suspensions and the damaging ramifications of the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s essential that schools and educators receive the necessary resources, training, and funding they require to fully address the racial discipline gap.


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