Many schools maintain a push and pull approach to attendance. One one hand, school administrators make extensive efforts to push parents to get their children to class.
Yet, schools adhere to suspension policies that pull students out of their seats for minor infractions. In 2010, U.S. schools suspended more than 3 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade. And many of those students were minorities and children with disabilities, according to a new analysis of data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
The review by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, found one in six African-American students was suspended from school, more than three times the rate of their white counterparts. Those findings are creating significant concern as school suspensions are linked to retention, lower graduation rates and funneling kids into what is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The analysis also found that more than 13 percent of students with disabilities were suspended, twice the rate of their non-disabled classmates. It also showed that one out of every four black children with disabilities was suspended at least once in 2009-2010.
The typical response is that black students misbehave more but the research refutes that contention. Instead, studies show that black students are punished more severely when they misbehave and for infractions that are often judgment calls — talking back or showing disrespect.
Students are increasingly suspended for nonviolent infractions such as truancy, dress code violations, inappropriate language, insubordination and disruptions.
“A driver in the increase in suspensions and expulsions has been the rise of zero-tolerance polices in the late 1980s and early ’90s,” said Russell Skiba of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University on a conference call on the UCLA findings.
The UCLA analysis found disparate suspension rates across schools and among schools with similar demographics. “A number of districts in the same state don’t have high rates of the use of suspension and expulsion,” said Skiba. “The use of suspension and expulsion is, in fact, a choice.”
And it’s a bad one, said Tina Dove of the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, an advocacy group supporting a moratorium on out-of-school school suspensions. Launched in late August, the “Solutions Not Suspension” campaign urges schools to adopt in-school disciplinary alternatives, especially for lesser infractions.
“As a former teacher, I know firsthand the negative impact of kids being out of school, out of their chairs on suspension,” Dove said in a telephone interview. “Every day, we are seeing more and more situations where children are sent out of school for random and capricious offenses. It is too severe — it is like imposing a life sentence for behaviors that are all too often a part of growing up.”
Dove understands her colleagues still in the classroom may disagree and tell her that the price of reduced suspensions is a higher tolerance of bad behaviors. And that leads to classes held hostage to troublemakers.
“This is by no means a call to ignore the elephant in the room,” said Dove. “There is no doubt that a disruptive child in the class makes the job of the teacher more difficult and makes it more difficult for the students trying to learn. But going to the opposite extreme — let’s just throw them out of the class — is also not good.”
UCLA study lead author Daniel J. Losen said some districts agree and are reducing suspension rates, citing the 84,000-student Baltimore City Schools, which, under CEO Andres Alonso, went from 26,000 suspensions in 2003-2004 to 10,000 six years later.
“We are turning the corner, but we haven’t fully turned it yet,” Losen said.
As a teacher, Dove said she came to realize that problem students often had problems. Perhaps, they couldn’t hear or see well enough to follow in class. They might be hungry. Mood swings in her high schools students often reflected personal or family struggles.
“Suspending them doesn’t solve any of these problems,” Dove said. “Let’s slow down. Let’s stop throwing them out. Let’s come together, teachers, administrators, parents, students and community, and devise a plan that works. We have already seen places that have done this. This is not poppycock. Working together, instead of working in isolation, creates alternatives so we can keep kids where we need them to be — in the classroom and learning.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog