The Civil Rights Project recently released a report showing alarming trends in suspension rates in California public schools. Researchers compiled data from the Office for Civil Rights covering approximately 500 different districts for the 2009-2010 school year, during which more than 400,000 students were suspended at least once. As the study points out:
“That’s enough students suspended out-of-school to fill every seat in all the professional baseball and football stadiums in the state…”
Here are some results that caught my eye:
1. African American males receive significantly more suspensions than females or students of other races. African Americans of both genders had a suspension rate of 18%, whereas Latinos and white students trailed behind them at 7% and 6%, respectively. This is a pretty significant gap, but as the study focuses in on male students in the ten largest districts — Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, Oakland Unified, and Stockton Unified among them — it only gets wider. 38% of African American males in Stockton Unified were suspended in 2009-2010, a full 15% above whites and 19% above Latinos. Unfortunately, African Americans stand out even more starkly in the districts reporting the highest suspension rates in the state. According to the study:
“–nearly one of every four students of all races and ages — received at least one suspension that school year…with Black students suspended on average at a rate that was a full 20 percentage points higher than white students.”
This data isn’t broken down by gender, but if it follows a similar trend as the statistics for the ten largest districts, African American males likely account for twice as many suspensions as their female counterparts.
2. Students with disabilities are suspended twice as often as their peers. All students with disabilities should have IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and/or behavior modifications that must be carried out and updated each school year. This study seems to indicate that teachers and other school staff either need assistance implementing each student’s individual mandates and/or need to be better trained on how to approach disciplining students with disabilities. It obviously takes a full set of resources — teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, professional development — to make sure that these kids are able to fully function in the classroom. As school budgets continue to shrink and the importance of standardized test scores rise, schools may not have the time, money or staff needed to invest in well-thought-out, constructive discipline for special-needs students. Out-of-school suspension becomes the quick, seemingly misguided alternative.
3. Suspensions hinder the suspendee’s ability to make educational gains. I’ve taught in the Bronx for several years and have seen students irreparably fall behind their classmates after suspensions. Simply not being in a familiar classroom environment for ten, thirty, or sometimes sixty days disrupts their routine and causes them to miss huge chunks of their core classes. It’s a rare student than can bounce back from such a disruption without summer school or being held over.
I have a hard time swallowing the next assertion the study makes: suspending problematic students doesn’t allow their classmates to learn better. Despite the fact that the report refers to studies supporting this, I’ve seen too many cases to the contrary to believe it fully. It’s amazing how much of a difference removing a disruptive or combative student can change a learning environment for the better.
Students learn much more effectively when they are comfortable. Sometimes removing a “bad apple” allows the other students to focus on their classwork instead of worrying about dodging taunts, embarrassment, or potential fights. Granted, it’s up to teachers to make sure their classrooms are physically and emotionally safe for all students, but even the best teachers can’t catch everything — especially if we have 30-40 students in front of us at a time. It’s what we do with the removed students that brings us to our next interesting tidbit:
4. Suspensions aren’t a deterrent, rather they tend to foster repeat offenses. This one speaks for itself:
“For students with similar demographic, achievement, and socioeconomic profiles, those with one or more suspensions or expulsions were 5 times more likely to drop out–and 6 times more likely to repeat a grade level–than those students with no disciplinary actions.”
The report goes on to say that these students were also more likely to have some sort of run-in with the police or juvenile justice system. Why? Suspended students most likely are required to report to suspension centers filled with other suspended students. For kids in an inner-city environment in general, the rougher and tougher you are, the more respect and credibility you earn. Doing well academically isn’t necessarily going to score you many points on the cool scale — especially in a suspension facility. On the contrary, you’re likely to make friends with other students that are likely to approve of and encourage the very behaviors that got you there in the first place.
What to do
The Civil Rights Project names the basic solutions — PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports), establish a positive school culture, etc. I for one think they need to dig a little deeper into the solutions barrel in order to tackle this extremely complex problem. First, we need to know what these students are being suspended for. Only then can educators and researchers start to concoct an effective solution.
If my suspicions are correct, many of these students were likely suspended for fighting or some sort of physical aggression. How do I know? Schools don’t exist in bubbles. What happens in the streets, parks, apartment buildings, and project housing bleeds into the school environment. A kid who’s going to make it in a tough neighborhood better have a quick mouth and quick fists, especially boys.
Verbal negotiation isn’t usually an option — verbal insults are. Fighting is. I’ve had many students tell me that they have to fight if someone disrespects them, and that even their parents tell them they better be ready to defend themselves. I’ve heard parents tell their kids this. I can’t disagree with them. If they’re walking home and someone threatens them, all they can count on is themselves. They don’t have options.
In school, they do have options. They have people to turn to whose job it is to keep them physically and emotionally safe. The trouble is convincing them it’s okay to ask for help and that they’re not weak in doing so. Furthermore, in order to truly give them options, we need to invest in programs that specifically teach inner-city youth other strategies for solving disagreements and controlling their emotions. We also need inner-city communities to band together (a la “The Interrupters”) to make their neighborhoods safer and reduce the need for physical aggression in the first place.
Unless we as adults take responsibility for the social and emotional development of these students, they’ll continue to apply what works outside of schools to social situations inside of schools. In other words, they’ll keep turning to tactics that put them at risk for suspension and put their future at risk period.
Photo Credit: Vox Efx via Flickr