AFRICANGLOBE – Two students set off fire alarms in the same school district. One of them, an African-American kindergartner, is suspended for five days; the other, a White ninth-grader, is suspended for one day.
•An African-American high-schooler is suspended for a day for using a cellphone and an iPod in class. In the same school, a White student with a similar disciplinary history gets detention for using headphones.
•Two middle-schoolers push each other; the White student receives a three-day, in-school suspension, while the native American student is arrested and suspended, out of school, for 10 days.
Civil rights groups have been saying for years that school discipline is not meted out fairly, citing examples like these reported last year from around the country by the US Department of Education.
High rates of suspensions and expulsions for certain groups – particularly African-Americans, and those with disabilities – are evident in data gathered nationally by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
Data from 72,000 American public schools in the 2009-10 school year, for example, show that while African-Americans make up 18 percent of the students in this large sample, they account for 46 percent of students suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of students arrested on campus.
White students, by contrast, represent 29 percent of multiple suspensions and 33 percent of expulsions – but 51 percent of the students.
School leaders have to maintain a safe environment for learning, and about 4 in 10 teachers and administrators surveyed recently by Education Week said out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are an effective way to do that. Some expulsions have even been mandated by law, particularly when a student brings a gun to school.
Yet increasingly, “we’re seeing suspensions for things that used to be considered typical adolescent behavior and were dealt with in less harsh ways within the school system,” says Jim Eichner, managing director of programs for the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group in Washington.
While opinions differ about whether student behavior has become more disruptive or dangerous, the number of suspensions has grown dramatically in recent decades.
In 1976, nearly 1.8 million students were suspended – 4 percent of all public-school students; by 2006, the number of students suspended had nearly doubled to 3.3 million, about 7 percent of all students, according to Department of Education data.
In addition to the suspensions, 102,000 students were expelled – removed from school for the remainder of the year or longer – in 2006.
Nearly two decades of a “zero tolerance” mentality has contributed dramatically to a spike in exclusionary discipline that involves racial disparities, youth and civil rights advocates say. It has led to what they call a “school-to-prison pipeline,” and the implications of this unfair, even draconian, disciplinary system are enormous, they say.
National goals to prepare more students for college and careers can’t be met if so many students continue to miss out on school, a growing number of educators and lawmakers add – and society will pay down the road for more jobless and incarcerated young people.
A microcosm of that problem was captured in a groundbreaking 2011 Texas study that tracked more than 1 million students for six years. “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in New York, found that nearly 6 in 10 students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once between Grades 7 and 12. But the removals were mandated by law in only 3 percent of those cases. And 31 percent of students suspended or expelled more than once for discretionary reasons repeated a grade – twice the rate of similar students not suspended or expelled. Of the 15 percent of students suspended or expelled 11 or more times, only 4 in 10 graduated within one to three years of their expected graduation date.
When a lot of kids get suspended – more than 70 percent in some schools – “we’ve cheapened the deterrent,” Mr. Eichner says. And kids “don’t internalize that they did something wrong” when they feel discipline is unfair – either because it’s for minor offenses or it seems racially biased.
Precious Brazel, for one, doesn’t think her suspension was fair, and she offers an example of how suspensions may not resolve problems between students and authority figures.
The African-American 10th-grader at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., acknowledges it was against the rules to have her kick scooter on campus. But she says the principal saw her with it and told her it was OK as long as she didn’t ride it. Soon after, she got into an argument with a security guard over the scooter.
When the guard tried to take it away, “it hit her in the knee and she got upset,” Precious says. The security guard also accused Precious of “cussing her out” – and Precious admits cursing, but not at the guard.
After administrators heard both sides, they sent Precious home for two days. She says it didn’t cause her to think she needed to change her behavior in the future, but rather, “it made me disrespect [the security guard] more, because she was rude to me.”
Civil Rights Violations
In the past four years, OCR has received more than 1,250 complaints of civil rights violations involving school discipline. It has also launched 20 compliance reviews – broad scale investigations of school systems – to probe significant racial disparities in discipline rates.
Three of those reviews have resulted in voluntary plans to reduce suspensions overall and disproportionately high discipline rates for certain groups – most notably a landmark effort in California’s Oakland Unified School District.
Skeptics of OCR’s focus on racial data say it could have unintended consequences.
In the view of Hans Bader, senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., suspensions largely “reflect actual infraction rates.” So the implication that rates for certain groups should be reduced until they are closer to those of other groups sounds like racial quotas, he says.
OCR’s investigation into racial disparities isn’t a problem in and of itself, says Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, but “you have to think about how educators and administrators are going to respond to what they see as signals out of the federal government…. If [they] perceive the policy to be, ‘Oh, you just can’t suspend kids, particularly African-American kids,’ that’s not the response you would want.”