Rocketing school suspensions may feed the school-to-prison pipeline – and even violate civil rights.
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, Hispanics, 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.
Many people might assume the racial breakdown of discipline simply reflects higher rates of misbehavior by some groups of students, perhaps explained by factors such as poverty.
Research has shown that’s not an adequate explanation.
“There’s quite a bit of literature that supports the finding that it’s not just about kids behaving badly,” says Russell Skiba, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington and an expert on school violence and discipline.
His recent study of discipline data in one Midwestern state found that even after controlling for types of student behavior and poverty, African-Americans still had 1.5 times higher rates of suspension or expulsion than whites did.
Characteristics of the schools themselves made a big difference. For instance, students in schools with a high proportion of black students (not just urban, but suburban schools as well) were nearly six times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than students in schools with low black populations, the study found.
Also, in schools where the principal supported alternatives to suspensions, the racial disparity in discipline could be predicted to be much less than in schools where the principal had a traditional reliance on suspensions.
Now, some advocacy groups say, the degree to which schools call on police to deal with student behavior has resulted in a school-to-prison pipeline – with young people flowing into the criminal-justice system because of school-based offenses. In October, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit accusing local, county, and state officials in Meridian, Miss., of operating such a pipeline, routinely violating children’s rights. Students as young as 10 – particularly African-Americans and children with disabilities – were allegedly arrested for minor issues including rudeness to a teacher and tardiness. They were held for days without a probable-cause hearing, the suit claims, and if they were on probation, they would automatically be sent to juvenile jail if suspended. Officials named in the suit denied the allegations.
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