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Report: School suspensions widen achievement gap

Nearly 3.5 million students were suspended from public schools at least once in 2011-12
In lieu of suspensions, Broward County students are referred to a program where they receive counseling and academic help.
In lieu of suspensions, Broward County students are referred to a program where they receive counseling and academic help.

Disproportionate suspension rates for black students and disabled students have created a national “discipline gap,” making it more difficult for these students to succeed academically, according to the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

In 2011-12, nearly 3.5 million students were suspended from public schools at least once, says the institute’s new report, “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?” Schools suspended students with disabilities at rates two to three times higher than their non-disabled peers, the report found. Some 16 percent of black students were suspended, compared to 5 percent of white students.

“There is a growing awareness that in many schools, suspension is not a measure of last resort, but something districts use for minor offenses,” says Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and lead author of the report. “It’s gotten way out of hand in a way that’s detrimental to all kids, but has a tremendously disparate impact on black students and students with disabilities.”

A growing number of studies correlate suspension with lower test scores and higher dropout rates. A study earlier this year found the safest Chicago Public Schools buildings were those that suspended students less frequently. And administrators can play a key role.

Social-emotional learning and restorative justice—along with rigorous, sustained staff training—have reduced suspensions and increased positive student outcomes in many districts, Losen says. Restorative justice focuses on students making amends for misdemeanors, while social-emotional learning teaches students to manage their emotions.

Broward County success

After a state-high 1,062 school-related arrests were made in Broward County Public Schools in the year 2011-12, administrators created an “Eliminating the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse” committee to end zero-tolerance discipline practices and to keep students in class.

That year, 85 percent of all 82,000 suspensions were for minor incidents, such as disrupting class or using profanity. And 71 percent of all 1,000-plus arrests were for misdemeanors.

Instead of suspensions, students are referred to the PROMISE program, or Preventing Recidivism Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support and Education. Students receive counseling and academic support for two to nine days in an off-campus building, and then return to school.

Social workers and counselors monitor student progress for the next six weeks; then they decide to close the case or offer additional interventions. If a student refuses help, they are referred to the Juvenile Justice System of Care—a district-run courthouse for students or parents who do not comply with intervention requests.

The district also rewrote policies and provided staff training to focus on positive school climate and addressing misbehavior without involving police.

From 2011-12 to 2013-14, suspensions at Broward County decreased by nearly 30 percent and misdemeanor arrests decreased by 63 percent.

“We reworked our policy to remove instances where it told staff to engage law enforcement,” says Michealle Pope, executive director of student support initiatives. “We recognized that we had to use other interventions based on the offense to try to address the misbehavior and rehabilitate, rather than be punitive.”