Religion & Liberty Online

Rhode Island makes it difficult to suspend students

The current problems with the school-to-prison pipeline often start with poor school discipline policies. Various school discipline policies and tactics have recently come under criticism for being overly harsh—often causing students to drop out of school. The frequent use of suspension and expulsion for minor offenses has become commonplace in many schools across the country.

Over the summer Gina Raimondo, the Democratic governor of Rhode Island, signed a bill into law making it harder for schools to suspend students for minor infractions. The law creates stricter guidelines for when students can be sent home from school in order to lower the number of suspensions. High suspension rates are just one of the contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline. A Febuary 2015 study by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies looked at some of the contributing factors to the problem and how the policies affect different parts of the population.

Data cited in the report found that most suspensions occur in secondary school and are rarely used in younger grades. Students who had a disability were suspended twice as much as non-disabled students in the 2009-10 school year. One out of 3 students with an emotional disturbance were suspended.

The data on the types of students most often suspended shows part of the problem in discipline, that is, suspension often replaces needed intervention for at-risk students. If suspension is used as a primary form of punishment it does not encourage growth but instead increases chances of dropout and delinquency. For example, being suspended once in 9th grade doubles a student’s chance of dropping out. Minority students were most often the recipients of suspensions and therefore recipients of the increased chances of delinquent behavior outside of school.

The study says that myths fuel the pipeline, especially the common perception that suspension is reserved for major offenses. Most suspensions are actually for minor offenses. In California, the report found that most suspensions occurred for disruption and defiance, while major offenses more commonly punished through expulsion. Instead of deterring behavior, suspension was found to reward misbehaving students. They found that school involvement was the best way to discourage delinquency. In other words, keeping students in school helped keep them out of trouble outside of school. The rising number of suspensions actually increased delinquency and contributed to problems in school safety.

The crisis in suspension is one of the leading contributors to the school-to-prison pipeline where the main victims are minority, disabled, and emotionally disturbed students. Without changes to how we discipline students, and more involvement from parents in the discipline process, the school-to-prison pipeline will continue to hurt the most disadvantaged in our communities. Some might argue that public schools are simply becoming extensions of America’s growing police state tendencies.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Professor of Religious Studies at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.