Black students and students with disabilities remain more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, despite overall declines

Publication Date:

Apr 29, 2019

Over the last decade, education officials across the country have worked to reduce the use of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary approaches that remove students from schools. New legislation and codes of student conduct have spread in the wake of high-profile studies linking such practices to harmful student outcomes, including school dropout and contact with the juvenile justice system.[1] Meanwhile, federal data has raised public awareness of wide disparities by race and disability in the administration of discipline.[2]

Some states have enacted legislation that would increase public transparency regarding the use of discipline (e.g., Arkansas), limit suspensions and expulsions for young children (e.g., Maryland, New Jersey), and limit suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent behavior (e.g., Tennessee).[3] Other states have enacted legislation that directs education officials to review discipline data for subgroup disparities and address inequity (e.g., Rhode Island).[4] Further, the nation’s most prominent K–12 statute, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires states and school districts to develop strategies to reduce the use of harmful discipline practices.[5] These efforts emerged amid widening consensus between policymakers, educators, and researchers that suspension and expulsion should be replaced whenever possible with evidence-based practices shown to address the underlying causes of student misbehavior.[6]

Child Trends reviewed trends in school-level discipline data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to better understand how discipline practice has shifted amid rising awareness of the detrimental effects of suspensions. The release of the school year (SY) 2015–16 CRDC in 2018 marked the first occasion that school-level reports of out-of-school suspension were available from every public school in the nation, for three points in time: SY 2011–12, SY 2013–14, and SY 2015–16. Using this data, Child Trends researchers answered three questions:

  • Are schools reducing their use of out-of-school suspension?
  • Are schools reducing disparities by race and disability in the use of out-of-school suspension?
  • Are schools achieving reductions in out-of-school suspension by increasing their reliance on other punitive discipline practices?

While there are many school responses to student behavior that may pose harm to children—such as seclusion, restraint, school-based arrest, and expulsion—we chose to focus on out-of-school suspension due to its widespread use and clear interruption of academic instruction. In SY 2015–16, 2.7 million public school children experienced an out-of-school suspension.[7] More than one third of children experience suspension during their K–12 public school careers.[8]

K–12 schools have achieved clear, but unsteady, progress in decreasing out-of-school suspension.

Because discipline practice is strongly shaped by school-level decisions, our analysis tracked the average percentage of children suspended at each individual public school over time. In SY 2011–12, schools suspended an average of 5.6 percent of their enrolled students. Four years later, schools suspended 4.7 percent of students—a 17 percent decrease in out-of-school suspension. The decrease was even larger among secondary schools, where there was a 21 percent drop in out-of-school suspension.

 

While most states report reductions in out-of-school suspensions since 2011, rates have increased in 8 states

School-level prevalence of one or more out of school suspensions during school years 2011-12, 2013-14, and 2015-16

In most, but not all, states, schools reported reductions in the percentage of students suspended: Eight states saw increases over the four-year stretch. States in the southeast have higher-than-average rates of out-of-school suspension, while states in the northwest and northeast tend to have rates below the national average. These patterns are consistent over time, despite reductions in average suspension rates.

Schools are reporting success in reducing reliance on out-of-school suspension for multiple student subgroups.

We repeated our school-level analysis to determine whether reductions in suspension were achieved across subgroups. We examined the prevalence of suspension for five groups of students: white students, black students, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and students without disabilities.[9]

All five subgroups experienced fewer suspensions in SY 2015–16 than in SY 2011–12, both in public K–12 schools generally and in public secondary schools. Hispanic students, in particular, saw drops in their rates of suspension: Among K–12 schools, Hispanic students were suspended at rates moderately higher than white students in SY 2011–12 (5.0 percent compared to 4.7 percent). Four years later, after schools reduced suspensions for Hispanic students by nearly one third, white students (3.8 percent) had a slightly higher rate of suspension than Hispanic students (3.5 percent).

Even as black students and children served by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) experience fewer suspensions than in the past, the average school continues to suspend both groups at rates far higher than their peers. As of SY 2015–16, schools suspended black students (8 percent) at rates more than twice as high as white (3.8 percent) and Hispanic students (3.5 percent). Further, schools suspended children with disabilities (8.6 percent) at rates more than twice as high as children without disabilities (4.1 percent). Also in the same year, the average public secondary school administered out-of-school suspension to 12.8 percent of black students and 12.8 percent of students with disabilities.

While a small percentage of schools have succeeded in closing disparities by race and ethnicity, disparities by disability status remain unchanged.

While the previous analysis shows clear race and disability disparities in suspension across schools, we also looked for changes in the number of schools with such disparities within their school.[10] For this analysis, we made three comparisons: suspensions for black and white students; suspensions for Hispanic and white students; and suspensions for students with disabilities and students without disabilities.[11] We found wide state-level variations in the percentage of schools with statistically significant subgroup disparities, which are illustrated in the map below.

 

In SY 2011–12, one quarter of K–12 schools serving at least one black and one white student had disproportionately higher rates of suspension for black students. The proportion of such schools decreased by 8 percent four years later. During that same period, the percentage of schools suspending Hispanic students more frequently than white students decreased from 8.8 percent to 6.2 percent—a nearly 30 percent drop. A larger proportion of secondary schools have disparities, but these follow the same trends as K–12 schools overall.

While the proportion of schools with racial and ethnic disparities is decreasing—faster for Hispanic students, slower for black students—it is unclear that this trend applies to schools with disparities based on disability. This is particularly troubling: As of SY 2011–12, more than 37 percent of K–12 schools that serve students with disabilities—and more than 48 percent of secondary schools that serve students with disabilities—suspended children with disabilities at higher rates than their peers. By SY 2015–16, the percentage of secondary schools with disability disparities decreased by only 2 percent, while the percent of K–12 schools with disability disparities increased by 2 percent.

This analytical approach is useful in examining both practices and shifts in practices within schools serving multiple race and ethnic subgroups. However, this analysis does not capture disparities that may result from differences in discipline practice between schools. Studies suggests that black students, for example, experience higher rates of discipline in schools serving larger proportions of black students.[12] Further, studies have shown that variations in discipline practice between schools can be substantial, even when schools are within the same school district.[13]

There is room for optimism that suspension has not been replaced by other punitive practices, but education officials should be wary of the use of school-based arrests as suspensions decrease.

As research has called into question the effectiveness of suspension in reducing student misbehavior or improving student safety, initiatives to reduce suspension generally encourage greater use of evidence-based practices that address student social, emotional, and behavioral needs.[14] This goal is not met if schools simply trade one punitive practice for others. We analyzed the CRDC to examine whether schools reporting reductions in suspension may be increasing their reliance on other routine, but punitive, discipline practices to manage student behavior.

Our analyses compared rates of eight discipline practices between public K–12 schools that decreased suspension (from SY 2011–12 to SY 2015–16) and schools that increased suspension during the same time period. Specifically, we examined both groups of schools for increases in in-school suspension, expulsion, corporal punishment, arrests, referrals to law enforcement, mechanical restraint, physical restraint, and seclusion. For both groups of schools, there will typically be a subset that increased their use of one or more of these punitive practices, based on random variation. Unless suspensions were traded for other punitive measures, schools with decreasing suspensions should generally have an equal or smaller portion of schools with increases in other punitive discipline practices, relative to schools with rising suspension rates.

Using this method, we found little evidence at the national level that schools reducing suspensions were trading between discipline types. We identified only one type of discipline—school-based arrest—for which the likelihood of an increase was marginally higher in schools that decreased suspension than in schools that increased it. This pattern was repeated when we examined trends in the use of discipline by subgroup. Schools that decreased suspension rates for black students, Hispanic students, and students with disabilities were slightly more likely to increase school-based arrests than schools that had increased suspension rates during the same timeframe.

Conclusion

This analysis provides a critical update on the status of school discipline practice that should inform policymakers and educators as they work to create safe, productive, and fair learning environments. Several initiatives in recent years have addressed school discipline: This brief helps illustrate whether discipline practice is moving in the right direction without identifying the specific causes of recent shifts in out-of-school suspension.

School reliance on suspension as a mechanism for managing student behavior is decreasing but continues to be widespread. Schools reported lower rates of out-of-school suspension in SY 2015–16 than four years before, and disparities in discipline by race and ethnicity seem to be slowly narrowing. There is both reason for optimism and a need for continued vigilance. While gaps are large—schools still suspend black students and children with disabilities at rates twice as high as their peers—a smaller overall proportion of black students and children with disabilities are receiving an out-of-school suspension.

While this is good news, state and district education officials should be wary. This analysis uncovered little evidence of discipline tradeoffs at the national level, but did not include a comprehensive exploration of such trends at the local level. Initial analyses of the 10 largest school districts nationwide found that efforts to exchange suspensions for other forms of discipline may vary so widely from district to district that these patterns wash out in national analyses. Schools could also be engaging in informal discipline practices such as calling parents to pick students up, instructing parents to keep children home, and, for children with disabilities, shortening school days. The CRDC does not ask about such practices and schools generally do not record them as disciplinary actions. The possibility that school districts may be reducing suspensions by increasing punitive practices or introducing new exclusionary approaches warrants further study.

Educators and policymakers should celebrate their progress in reducing reliance on suspension while recognizing that there is still room for improvement. As schools continue their work to replace exclusionary practices with supportive approaches, education officials should examine trends in all authorized discipline practices and clarify the discipline practices allowable under state policy and local codes of conduct. Regular audits of school discipline records would also help to ensure the validity of discipline data. Moving forward, schools and educators that successfully transition to practices that address student needs—and that keep kids in schools—should be recognized for their efforts. Identifying such schools requires careful maintenance of and close attention to school discipline data.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Gabriel Pina, Samantha Anderson, and Emily Fulks for their contributions to the data analysis.

For details regarding the authors’ methodology, please click here.


[1] Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvment. New York, NY: Council of State Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A & M University. Retrieved from https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Breaking_Schools_Rules_Report_Final.pdf

[2] U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2014). Civil Rights Data Collection: Data snapshot: School Discipline. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf

[3] Rafa, A. (2018). Policy snapshot: Suspension and expulsion. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from: https://www.ecs.org/wp-content/uploads/Suspension_and_Expulsion.pdf

[4] Rafa, A. (2018). Policy snapshot: Suspension and expulsion. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from: https://www.ecs.org/wp-content/uploads/Suspension_and_Expulsion.pdf

[5] 20 U.S.C §§ 6311(g)(1)(C)(ii) and 6312(b)(11)

[6] Morgan, E., Salomon, N., Plotkin, M., & Cohen, R. (2014). The school discipline consensus report: Strategies

from the field to keep students engaged in school and out of the juvenile justice system. New York: The Council of State Governments Justice Center. Retrieved from http://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/The_School_Discipline_Consensus_Report.pdf

[7] U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2018). 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection: School climate and safety. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf

[8] Shollenberger, T. L. (2015). Racial disparities in school suspension and subsequent outcomes: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, In D. J. Losen (Ed.), Closing the school discipline gap: Equitable remedies for excessive exclusion (pp. 31-43), New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

[9] For the purpose of this brief, “students with disabilities” refers to students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and does not include students served under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

[10] As the CRDC is based on actual student records from every public school in the nation—that is, the CRDC contains population data rather than sample data—it is generally unnecessary to use statistical significance tests to identify a difference between student subgroups when looking at overall trends. However, when looking at differences at the school level, it is important to consider that each school is a sample from the broader population, creating more potential for variation in the underlying propensity for discipline use in a given school. Thus, for this analysis, we used statistical testing to differentiate schools with clear subgroup disparities from schools which had disparities based on random variation. To make this distinction, we subtracted discipline rates between groups within schools (e.g., the rate of out-of-school suspension for black students minus the rate of out-of-school suspension for white students). Z-tests of proportions were then used to determine whether these differences had less than a five percent likelihood of being due to chance (i.e., we can be 95 percent confident that observed disparities were real disparities). This does mean, in some cases, real disparities were not identified if populations were especially small (i.e., type II error).

[11] For each comparison, we restricted our analyses to those schools serving at least one child in each of the two subgroups examined. The sample of schools varied for each analysis such that schools that serve only white and black—but not Hispanic—students were included in the first analysis but not in the second.

[12] Ramey, D. (2015). The social structure of criminalized and medicalized school discipline. Sociology of Education, 88(3), 181-201. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0038040715587114

[13] Fabelo, T., Thompson, M. D., Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M. P., & Booth, E. A. (2011). Breaking schools’ rules: A statewide study of how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvment. New York, NY: Council of State Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A & M University. Retrieved from https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Breaking_Schools_Rules_Report_Final.pdf

[14] Sartain, L., Allensworth, E., & Porter, S. (2015). Suspending Chicago’s students: Differences in discipline practices across schools. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved from  https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/publications/Suspending%20Chicagos%20Students.pdf