The School Suspension Quagmire
Religion & Liberty Online

The School Suspension Quagmire

ClassroomThe harsh discipline policies at schools across the nation are now under close scrutiny. Last week, Secretary of Education John King criticized the ‘zero-tolerance’ discipline policies of many charter schools across the country. King claimed that the complicated issues surrounding school discipline were being oversimplified into a binary process at many charter schools that led to a higher number of suspensions.

This is a problem that exists across public, private, and charter schools around the country: students are suspended and expelled over minor and first time offenses often prompting them to not finish their education. A 2014 report from The Civil Rights Project highlighted some of the success in California schools towards easing their harsh discipline policies to the benefit of many students and especially California’s minority populations.

The report’s findings relied on new information regarding the past several school years from the California Department of Education. In the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years there was a decrease in the number of students suspended across ethnic groups and especially in the most often suspended demographics – Black and Native American students. Black students had the largest decline in suspensions with 3 less per 100 students than in previous years.

The data shows that schools in California are narrowing the racial divide in school discipline and the reliance on out-of-school suspension (OSS). In California, 500 school districts reported decreased OSS rates while only 245 districts reported increases. Even with the new decreases in OSS rates there are still large racial disparities in the number suspensions that are occurring. The number of suspensions that happen in the U.S. hurts the poor and minority students that most often receive them, and impede graduation rates among these students. One positive example the report cites is Baltimore City where decreased suspension rates actually led to increased graduation rates in the district.

The OSS problem mainly exists with the overabundance of suspension for minor offenses such as ‘disruption’ or ‘willful defiance.’ These catch-all categories include other minor offenses such as failure to do homework or not paying attention. Suspension as a punishment for offenses like this fails to address the problems in the students’ behavior and increases the likelihood of dropout and delinquency. And unfortunately the largest racial gaps often occur within these largely subjective discipline categories.

The results toward racial equality in school discipline is encouraging in California but still requires significant work. Overall the study found that OSS rates out of every hundred students In Los Angeles dropped from 12.1 to 7.1 for Black students; 3.1 to 1.7 for Latino students; and 2.4 to 1.0 for White students. While the racial gap in LA is one of the lowest in the state it still points to the problems inherent in the disciplinary process. With more research coming out each year about the connections between high school suspension, expulsion, delinquency, and the school-to-prison pipeline, these reforms are important steps to take in reducing discriminatory punishment and high numbers of minority youths in juvenile and adult detention centers.

The problems in school discipline have many different causes, some of which are named in the report. However, what we are not talking about enough in this country is the role of parents in school discipline. In communities where the family has broken down, and parents are either trapped by unemployment or multiple jobs, the moral formation of children suffers. In previous generations, school suspensions were things that kids avoided at all costs because it meant facing one’s parents. It is likely that those days are over.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.