New Report Documents Disciplinary Inequities

Share this

A new study by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA finds that schools suspend African-American students at high rates, despite other options for responding to student misbehavior. The report, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” analyzes federal data from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for more than 6,800 medium and large school districts. The findings show that out-of-school suspension rates vary across the country, suggesting that some schools and districts may be taking more preventative and inclusionary approaches to behavior management than others. Still, too often, African-American students lose seat time for disciplinary reasons, causing them to miss valuable instruction and placing them at risk of falling behind.

According to the analysis, which excludes districts in Florida and Hawaii as well as New York City because of  data problems, 7 percent of all students were suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 school year. Suspension rates were very different for African-American and white students, with 17 percent of African-American students  suspended, compared to only 5 percent of white students. These numbers substantiate past research that finds that, compared to white students with similar disciplinary histories, similar background characteristics, and who attend similar schools, African-American students are more likely to be suspended or expelled for offenses that don’t have mandatory penalties.

Suspension rates for all groups of students vary widely across districts. This is especially true for African-American students. For example, in more than 300 of the districts analyzed, more than 25 percent of African-American students were suspended at least once in 2009-2010. In other districts, fewer than 3 percent of African-American students were suspended. One possible explanation for this variation is that educators in some districts respond to misbehavior with consequences that do not keep students out of class (after-school detention, parent conferences, or in-school suspension). For example, Baltimore City Public Schools has clearly delineated between offenses that warrant immediate suspension and those that don’t. The district also set guidelines around the steps schools should take before suspending students. Upon implementing this behavior policy, the district’s suspension rate fell by 58 percent between the 2003-04 academic year and 2010-11.

In the presence of alternative approaches to discipline, out-of-school suspension should be the consequence of last resort for most offenses. Students who are suspended face academic repercussions that can persist far beyond a few days of missed school. A study of Texas students found that those who were expelled or suspended were more likely to drop out than those who were not. Moreover, these students were twice as likely to be retained as similar students who had never been suspended or expelled. In other words, the loss of seat time creates a barrier to longer term learning and school engagement.

Given these glaring inequities in suspension rates, and the well-documented negative impacts of suspending students, educators, policymakers, and communities must work together to develop and enforce clear, consistent discipline policies aimed at keeping all students where they belong: in the classroom. When communities and educators rally around this issue, as they did in Baltimore, they can drastically reduce the high suspension rates that plague too many districts across the country. 

—Marni Bromberg and Allison Horowitz