“School reform” has become a buzz phrase in politics today, with its meaning defined by the various factions who have a stake in public education. What the term purportedly means is the transformation of the nation’s public school system into a more efficient and effective model that produces graduates who can compete at the postsecondary level and in the evolving global economy. Despite the praise some education advocates heap upon school reform efforts such as the one orchestrated by District of Columbia School Superintendent Michelle Ree, underlying problems persist that challenge the equitable provision of education. A recent report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center draws attention to one of the most troubling aspects of public education – the disproportionate suspensions of Black boys from school.
The report, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, looks at the manner in which schools expel students. The data in the report focuses on middle school age students. Suspensions not only cause students to miss valuable instructional time, extended absences from school set the stage for dropouts at the high school level. The report underscores how the use of suspensions has increased in recent years amid the push for “zero tolerance” standards for students who misbehave or deemed disruptive in the classroom. While the challenge to maintain school safety and ensure students well-being is real, the danger is in tilting too far in the direction of excessively punitive controls. The authors of the report point out that there is no evidence of a correlation between suspensions and improved student behavior, achievement and school safety.
In the report the authors indicate that the racial gap in suspensions has grown considerably since the 1970’s. At that time Black students had a suspension rate of about 6% - twice that of their white counterparts. Once zero-tolerance policies took root, Black students experienced a 9-percentage point increase and the overall suspension rate was at 15% in 2006.
The focus of the report is 18 urban school districts, including some of the nation’s largest in cities such as Los Angeles, Baltimore, Miami-Dade and Atlanta. In 2006, the average suspension rate was 11.2% for the middle schools surveyed for the report. For Black middle school students, 28.3% of males and 18% of females received suspensions from school. The gap between Black male and Black female students was the largest for any racial group. The numbers were equally high for Latino students, with 16.3% of males and 8.5% of females suspended. By contrast, 10% of white males and 4% of white females received suspensions.
The findings reveal high suspension rates in some districts for white students too, but overwhelmingly schools seem to target Black and Latino students. In particular, Black boys find themselves on the receiving end of school suspensions. In 11 of the 18 school districts surveyed in the study, over one in three Black males was suspended. In school districts in Palm Beach County and Milwaukee, the suspension rate for Black males was over 50 percent. Of the 175 schools in the study suspending more than 33% of Black males enrolled, 84 districts were expelling Black males at a rate of at least 50 percent. There has been no evidence in any of the research that the over representation of Blacks in school suspensions is due to higher rates of misbehavior.
The report acknowledges that there might be a legitimate reason for a school to resort to a suspension as a means to discipline a student. However, the authors question the efficacy of suspension as a tool and point to factors that often drive racial disparities in the rates of suspension in schools. In some instances, the authors note that schools often claim disobedience and disrespect as cause to suspend students, as well as classroom disruption. Schools often justify these expulsions as necessary to maintain safety. Yet, the authors cite research examining a single state that shows that schools issued only 5% of all out-of-school suspensions for disciplinary incidents that are deemed dangerous, such as weapons or drugs. The remaining 95% of suspensions fell into the categories disruptive and other.
The troubling aspect of this report is the implication for the future success of Black boys as they continue their education into high school. With high school dropout rates among Black males high, the frequency of suspensions at the middle school level is alarming. If school districts remove Black boys from classrooms at such high rates in middle school, they are losing valuable classroom time. They also stand a greater chance of exposure to potentially negative influences when out of the school building. The devaluing of education among Black boys seems to take root early in their educational careers and may be the cause later for the tremendous drop-off in their enrollment in postsecondary institutions.
The report makes several policy recommendations to address the racial disparity in suspension rates, including providing technical assistance on effective alternative strategies to school districts. The authors also recommend that the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) intensify its monitoring of school districts to determine whether policies or practices have a discriminatory impact. As the school reform movement attempts to remake public education, issues such as school suspensions will undermine any permanent solution to improve educational outcomes if not addressed.