Tara Grigson is an OK Policy intern. She is a psychology and Spanish major at the University of Tulsa and previously worked as a Mission Impact Intern at YWCA Tulsa.
In June, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights released a new report on equity and opportunity gaps in public schools. This report shows that nationally, black students are more than twice as likely to be arrested for school-related offenses as white students and nearly four times as likely to be suspended. The disparity goes as far back as pre-school, where the youngest black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended.
Oklahoma’s statistics are similarly jarring. During the 2011-2012 school year in Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS), almost two-thirds of black secondary students were suspended at some point during the year. The problem is not limited to Oklahoma City; it exists statewide. In 2011-2012, black elementary school students in Oklahoma were suspended at a rate more than three times the state average. The suspension rate for black high school students was more than twice the state average. Perhaps most shocking, the suspension rate of black elementary school students (9.21 percent) was greater than the rate for white high school students (7.65 percent).
Overuse of suspensions can seriously harm kids’ educational futures
Suspension leads to children spending less time in their classes – and the fewer days children are present at school, the less education they receive. Nationally, suspension is linked to dropping out and repeating grades. UCLA’s Civil Rights Project estimates that the increased drop-out rate caused by unnecessary suspensions is costing the country $35 billion per year. Suspension also is connected with a higher likelihood of getting in trouble with the justice system. One study out of Texas showed that 23 percent of students who were ever suspended ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer, compared to just 2 percent of the students who weren’t suspended.
In Oklahoma, actions that can lead to suspension include serious offenses like bullying, physical assault of a faculty member, or possession of alcohol, weapons, or stolen property, but students can also be suspended for any violation of a school regulation. In the case of out-of-school suspensions, school districts can determine whether or not they want to provide an education plan to students suspended for five days or fewer. This means that children can miss a full week of school, without the school having to support their education.
After the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found dramatic disparities in the suspension rates for black students in Oklahoma City, the district conducted an internal audit during the 2013-2014 school year. They found that the average length of suspension was 5.8 days; one high school’s average length of suspension was actually 19 days. They also found that schools were often failing to report cases of suspension adequately or accurately. Schools were inconsistent in the application of suspensions, such that students who committed the same infraction often received different lengths of suspensions, sometimes by more than a full school week.
Oklahoma’s largest districts are making progress, but other states have gone further
An agreement reached between OKCPS and the U.S. Department of Education includes provisions to decrease the number of suspensions, including refining what offenses merit suspension and requiring an employee to function as “district discipline supervisor.” As of August 2015, OKCPS has adopted a policy whereby a student gets to choose whether to take a suspension or spend 10 days in a “remedial program”, in which they are able to continue to do their coursework while having extra support and access to counselors. The Tulsa school board also recently approved new guidelines meant to find ways to solve problems without suspensions — especially for more minor infractions like truancy and skipping class.
Other states are taking on this issue. The Rhode Island Senate passed a bill this session that requires school superintendents to review the date for their districts and respond to any discipline disparities based on race, ethnicity, or disability. Similar efforts are occurring in Chicago and North Carolina. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, where out-of-school suspension is banned, students are sent to a “Success Center” instead; 15,000 students were suspended out-of-school in 2014-2015, compared to 3,000 who were sent to “Success Centers” in 2015-2016. Oklahoma has also offered several high-quality alternative education programs for the most at-risk students, but lawmakers have cut these programs dramatically in recent years due to the state’s chronic budget shortfalls.
“1.6 million students attend schools with at least one law enforcement officer but no guidance counselor.”
Students who are disruptive or chronically absent in schools are often the victims of trauma. New Hampshire’s Metropolitan Business Academy uses trauma-informed interventions rather than punishment, which has raised their graduation rate. The interventions are based on using drama classes as a way for students to work through their trauma. Their suspension rate dropped by two-thirds and the graduation and college enrollment rate both rose. Nationally, some schools have adopted a “restorative justice” approach, which is focused on the student making amends for their infraction, rather than being suspended or given detention. When this process is correctly implemented, it helps students understand the true impact of their actions and think before they act in the future.
Short of revamping school curriculum to include courses on handling trauma, employing more experienced and qualified teachers could decrease rates of suspension by race. Schools with many black students often have a large percentage of teachers who are inexperienced and less capable of controlling a classroom without resorting to harsh discipline. Support staff is important, too; nationwide, 1.6 million students attend schools with at least one law enforcement officer but no guidance counselor.
Fulfilling the core mission of our public schools requires student attendance and student well-being. Working to decrease the number of out-of-school suspensions and increase the number of days students are in school can improve education while saving money in the criminal justice system. The more we can find effective alternatives to suspension, the better it will be for our whole state.