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Too much or too little school discipline? Data often at odds with teacher, parent experiences.

Nothing brings out the blog skeptics as reports on disparities in how schools dole out student discipline, the focus a new report released this morning.

The disparity in school discipline is an important issue and one that needs to be better understood.

The conflicting views of student discipline – too much or too little -- explain why a five-member Senate study committee led by Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, could not come to consensus on recommended policy changes.

Among the research discussed by the committee at its fall hearings: Georgia third-graders and eighth-graders who've been suspended for 10 days or more are less likely to earn a high school diploma. An AJC investigation a year ago found 57 percent of students expelled and 67 percent of students given out-of-school suspensions were black. Thirty-seven percent of Georgia public school students are black.

A new analysis released today seeks to enlarge the discussion of those disparities. The report by the  Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project found Florida had the highest suspension rates for all students at both the elementary and secondary levels, suspending 5.1% of all elementary students and 19% of all secondary students in 2011-12.

Several states had high elementary school suspension rates, including Georgia. The report notes. “At the elementary level, the runner-up states were Mississippi and Delaware, each at 4.8%. At the secondary level, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina tied for second with a suspension rate of 16%."

The report states: "The state rankings raise important questions about educational inequity at the state level that are well beyond the scope of this report, such as: Why are American Indian students suspended at such high rates in North Carolina? Are there deficiencies in policies or education resources in Rhode Island that lead to more frequent suspensions? Why are 19% of English learners suspended from Montana’s schools?”

The report makes three chief recommendations:

  • Data: Mine the discipline data for lessons about what works, as well as to expose what isn’t working, including annual and public review of discipline data disaggregated by race, disability, and gender, down to the school level.
  • Support: Give districts and schools the resources they need to provide effective training and professional development for teachers and leaders. Educators need adequate training to ensure that they can meet their legal and professional responsibility and thus avoid unjustifiable use of disciplinary exclusion. This includes access to information and training in implementing practical alternative strategies. All schools must be given the capacity and skills to provide effective behavioral supports for students who need such help to stay in school and to be successful academically and socially.
  • Accountability: Make school climate an equal factor among those used to evaluate school and district performance and for accountability measures. Protect the civil rights of children and ensure that all schools provide equal educational opportunity.

The analysis goes deep on 24 districts including Atlanta to chronicle the trend in suspension rates.

The report found:

    • Atlanta City Schools suspended nearly four out of every 10 Black male secondary students with disabilities (38%) at least once in 2011- 12.
    • Nearly three out of every ten (29.2%) of Black female secondary school students with disabilities were suspended as well.
    • Overall suspension rates at the elementary level more than doubled for all students, increasing from 2.5% in 2009-10 to 5.3% in 2011-2012. That means approximately 1,570 elementary school students were suspended at least once in 2011-12.
    • Overall suspension rates at the secondary level increased even more, from 19.5% in 2009-10 to 28.7% in 2011-12, a jump of more than 9 percentage points. That means nearly 29 of every 100 secondary students were suspended, at least once that year.
    • With one exception, the racial gaps in the Atlanta City Schools suspension rates widened between 2009-10 and 2011-12. Suspension rates for Black students at the elementary level increased by 3.7 percentage points, from 3.2% to 6.9%. Rates increased by about one-half a percentage point for Latino students, from 0.4% to 0.9%, and by one-third of a percentage point for White students, from 0.1% to 0.4%. The increases for both Black and Latino students outpaced those for Whites, thus the Black-White discipline gap at the elementary level increased by 3.4 percentage points, while the Latino-White gap increased by 0.2 percentage points.

Here is the official release:

The reliance on student suspensions to maintain discipline in public schools varies dramatically across the 50 states, but a new statistical analysis has identified the individual districts with the most egregious records, while finding American children are losing almost 18 million days of instruction due to suspensions.

The new analysis, Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?, for the first time breaks out federal data by elementary and secondary schools, and combines all out-of-school suspensions to calculate comparative suspension rates for every district in the nation.  It found the highest suspending state for all students at both elementary and secondary levels was Florida.

The overall numbers, however, mask huge racial disparities that exist in a relatively small number of school districts across the country.  For example, schools in the area in and around St. Louis, Mo., which erupted in racial riots following the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white policeman last year, are among the worst in the country when it comes to the unequal treatment of black and white students.

Indeed, the state of Missouri now ranks No. 1 in the nation for having the largest gap in the way its elementary schools suspend black students compared to white students and 4th in the nation at the secondary level.

The analysis was conducted by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project.  While K-12 data reported by the nation’s more than 12,000 school districts was released last year, the U.S. Department of Education has never attempted the type of statistical breakout made possible by the UCLA center.

“The question we’re asking here is, ‘Are we closing the school discipline gap?’” said  Daniel J. Losen , the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies.  “For the first time, we can answer that question in a really meaningful way.  And the answer is, ‘A lot of school districts are closing the gap in a profound way, but not enough to swing the national numbers.’”

According to Losen, the data clearly show that more than half of the nation’s school districts treat removal from the classroom as a last resort and have relatively low suspension rates.  But many of the higher-suspending districts literally are off the chart, he added.

“The fact that 14 percent of districts suspended more than one of every 10 black elementary students, and 21 percent of the districts suspended one of every four black secondary students, is shocking when compared to the Latino and white distribution,” Losen said.  “The Normandy school district in Missouri, where Michael Brown attended, is among the highest suspending districts in the entire nation with an overall suspension rate for black students of just under 50 percent.  This type of large disparity impacts both the academic achievement and life outcomes of millions of historically disadvantaged children, inflicting upon them a legacy of despair rather than opportunity.”

The suspension rates are important to calculate and study, the analysis adds, because the latest research clearly demonstrates that high suspension rates do not produce a better learning climate for the other students in a school.

The new report provides a companion spreadsheet enabling anyone to compare or analyze data from every district in the nation. Further, there is a simplified web tool available that allows visitors to compare -- through graphic depictions -- the elementary and secondary suspension rates for any two districts and to discover whether the rates and disparities in a given district have increased or declined since the 2009-10 school year. The report, 24 district profiles and companion spreadsheet can be found here.





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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.