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Black R.I. students see high suspension rates

Brunt of out-of-school suspensions felt most severely by Ocean State’s black students

Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2015

In the Rhode Island public school system, one out of every six black students received an out-of-school suspension over an eight-year study.

This article is part of the series Playground to Prison

This series will explore the racial dynamics of Rhode Island’s school-to-prison pipeline. This story, the first of three, will look at the racial disparities present in the disciplinary decisions of R.I. public schools.

Stumbling late into class and hurriedly sliding into her seat, the high school student was reprimanded by her teacher with a well-known threat — tardiness would result in detention, and missing detention would lead to suspension. The student relayed the school’s policy to Young Voices ­— a nonprofit organization that advocates for a youth voice in policy — and they confirmed that suspending a student for missing detention is against state policy. Young Voices named the student when discussing her story with a news source. Rather than helping, drawing attention to the issue resulted in the student being intimidated by school officials and receiving disciplinary action for disrespect, according to Karen Feldman, executive director of Young Voices.

Such policies, which individual schools often administer on an ad hoc basis, contribute to the 17,944 high school suspensions issued by Rhode Island public schools in the 2012-2013 school year, according to data reported by the R.I. Department of the Education. But the use of suspension as a disciplinary tool starts even earlier for many students. The high numbers of suspensions at the elementary school level — where students are less likely to commit serious offenses than their older counterparts — drew the attention of an American Civil Liberties Union report released Feb. 19.

Rhode Island public schools issued approximately 17,000 elementary school suspensions between 2004 and 2012, according to the ACLU’s report, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Black and White.”

“That’s a huge number, given the size of enrollment in our state,” said Professor of Education Kenneth Wong.

Even more concerning than the total number of suspensions is the disproportionality of suspensions administered to black students. In the eight-year period studied, one of every six black students in the Rhode Island public school system received an out-of-school suspension compared to one in 16 white students, according to the ACLU. At the elementary level, black students are given suspensions six times as frequently as their white peers.

The data, collected from RIDE and published in past ACLU reports, also reveals that this racial disparity grows with regard to subjective offenses, such as “disorderly conduct,” “insubordination/disrespect”  and “obscene or abusive language toward a teacher or student.” In those cases, black students were “suspended 2.4 times as often as their representation in the population would predict,” the report stated.

“It starts in school and it certainly is incredibly toxic in school, but it’s something that perpetuates throughout an entire lifetime and really forces people onto the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Hillary Davis, policy associate at the ACLU of Rhode Island.

Suspensions can cause negative consequences even after the student returns to class, according to numerous national studies on the topic, including one by Providence Public School District psychologist Elizabeth A’Vant. Suspensions result in lost classroom time, which makes students feel disconnected from their school environments. This leads to increased dropout and juvenile detention rates.

Patrick Guida, chairman of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, explained that in-school suspensions are always preferable to out-of-school suspensions. Out-of-school suspension is more appropriate only if, “when the child remains in the school, it creates some additional risk either to that child or to another,” Guida said.

The ACLU report concludes by calling for the General Assembly to pass legislation limiting the use of out-of-school suspensions and requiring analysis and action regarding the racial disproportionality of administering such suspensions.

Wong sees a different path to improving the situation: the state school board. Responsibility for education falls under the state board’s purview because these high rates pose a “systemic challenge” and will require “system-wide strategies” to resolve, Wong said.

Those strategies could involve addressing the school climate of particularly problematic districts, improving teacher training for economically and racially diverse populations and issuing a basic set of suspension guidelines statewide, Wong said.

“There is a huge need for the state board to leverage resources from the community to support and improve the overall climate of the school,” such as enlisting local university researchers to create strategies for engaging the issue, Wong said.

Both routes to reforming Rhode Island’s suspension problem, through the General Assembly or the school board, face hurdles. Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, issued a statement last week that said “the troubling issues raised in the ACLU report point out how far our society has yet to go before we achieve true equity.” Her statement went on to describe possible legislation that would prevent racial profiling and open full-day kindergarten. But it neglected to mention any legislation specifically regarding school suspension.

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s, D-Cranston, statement was even less specific, saying, as quoted by, “I have not yet had the opportunity to review the ACLU report, but the House of Representatives will always work to enact policies that treat all persons fairly, equally and without discrimination.”

The school board could be another difficult path for change, considering that “each individual district is left with a great deal of discretion” in assigning suspensions in the gray areas of the state board’s official policy, Guida said.

“There’s always a preference, if possible, to do suspensions in school with some sort of constructive activity going on that might promote the learning of the student subject to the suspension,” Guida said. “It does sound like a large number to me … but I can’t be judgmental on whether or not it’s too many or not enough without knowing the background circumstances.”

School board meetings are open for public attendance and comment, but the issue of school suspensions and their disproportional application has never been brought up by constituents during his time on the board, Guida said. The commissioner and members of the school board can add issues to the agenda without public comment, but they have not yet done so on this issue.

“We might get it on the agenda in the context of the more recent information and some evidence that it’s not being administered in an equitable way,” but public comments are usually the engine for new discussion, Guida said.

Without statewide action, individual school districts and principals still have the power to reform their suspension policies, if they choose to. Stephanie Geller, a policy analyst for Rhode Island Kids Count, recommended the implementation of “tiered supports …that keep the school a safe place but are more productive in terms of addressing especially minor offenses.”

Those supports can be similar to those Wong suggested, including professional development for teachers and school-wide policies. Geller also recommended expanding restorative justice programs across the state that emphasize remedying student behavior over simply punishing children.

In cases where behaviors are not disruptive or harmful to others — such as tardiness — restorative justice and tiered supports are unnecessary, and familiarization with state policy on the individual school and teacher levels may be all that is necessary, Wong said.

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  1. TheRationale says:

    The implicit assumption made is that these numbers are the result of racism. However, the statistical analysis seems almost purposefully vague.

    Within each school, is there a racial bias? Or do schools of mostly minority students have generally higher rates? How does suspension line up with rates of poverty? With neighborhood gang activity? Number of parents in the home and their educational background? And what if the people administering these punishments are themselves minorities, which is often the case in minority-majority schools? Is it still racism?

    I wouldn’t put it past the public school system to mess anything up so terribly as to be grotesquely impressive, but simply declaring a problem to be so is hardly the same as deducing one, much less coming up with a solution. (By using poor statistical insight, you could argue that the height difference between men and women is evidence of sexist distribution of nutrients in society and then start lobbying for “reform”…)

    • I can’t speak to the RI data but in Massachusetts it was definitely racism:

      “White students received in-school suspensions about as often as they received out-of-school suspensions for the “non-violent, non-criminal, non-drug” incidents described above. However, both Latino and Black students received out-of-school suspensions almost twice as often as they received in-school suspensions for these more minor incidents.

      These disparities cannot be explained by the suggestion that students of color misbehaved more often than their White peers, thus deserving increasingly harsher punishments. Looking only at students disciplined at least once for “non-violent, non-criminal, non-drug” incidents, White students who received any discipline were repeatedly punished at a rate (2.4 punishments per student) similar to Black students and Latino students (each 2.5 punishments per student).”

      • White students are suspended more than Asian students. Is that racism?

        • If there is evidence to support the claim that Asian students misbehave as often as their white peers then it is absolutely prejudicial and wrong. In the data I linked, Asians and whites had equivalent suspension rates so it appears to only be prejudicial to hispanic and black students. Systemic prejudice against minority groups = racism.

          • Asians are a minority group. So why isn’t systemic prejudice resulting in a higher number of Asians being suspended?

          • because not all minority groups have been/are treated the same. Is that really a novel concept to you?

          • Moving the goal posts.

          • hahahahahahahahahahahah wow. This is genuinely a first. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone argue that racist behavior must be unilaterally enacted across minority groups in order to be considered racist. Are the KKK not racist because they don’t lynch Asians?

          • Every article, essay, etc I’ve read has made a clear distinction between what it means to be white in America or a minority (person of color). They don’t make a third distinction. And Asians don’t benefit from white privilege.

          • Well you obviously didn’t read this article which is clearly talking about black vs. white. The article I linked talks about white, hispanic, black, and asian.

            You’re right, Asians don’t benefit from white privilege but they also aren’t discriminated against in the same ways as blacks (to pick one group). A lot of that stems from the fact that white people did not import and trade them as property for centuries in America and then after that was deemed illegal, they enacted other laws to subjugate them because they still didn’t really believe they were full blown humans equivalent to white people. But Asians are still (and have been) discriminated against. Look up the National Origins act of 1924 or the term “Yellow Peril.” I mean we had concentration camps on US soil for the Japanese. Was that not racist because we didn’t put equal numbers of black and hispanic people in concentration camps too?

            Or instead of that question, would you like to answer my original question: The KKK didn’t lynch Asians. Does that mean you don’t consider them a racist organization?

  2. Stephen J. O'Rourke says:

    Has anyone considered that the higher suspension rate is due to a higher incidence of misbehavior. Disparate impact doesn’t cut it!

    • I can’t speak to the RI data, but if you see my response to TheRationale, you can see that in MA they controlled for that.

      • ShadrachSmith says:

        PC studies gruber PC conclusions out of any or even no data. Why should anybody believe this anti-white political meme any more than we believed the Hands Up anti-white political meme? Since Obama put Sharpton in as racial harmony czar, I have doubts that racial harmony is the Democrat’s goal in the first place.

  3. The suspension data collected by the Dept of Ed showed a massive disparity between whites and Asians. Whites were almost three times more likely to get suspended than an Asian kid. Racism!

  4. It is a plausible hypothesis that tendencies toward “socially undesirable” behavior emerge earlier and with greater frequency in the lives of black students in RI (amd elsewhere) than is the case for students generally. And “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree” tends to explain evidence that such is also the case among out-of-school adults.

  5. As indicated by the ACLU study’s recommendation that the assembly limit the use of out of school suspensions, the study reflects the common belief that generally reducing discipline rates will tend to reduce relative racial differences in discipline rates. That belief is the exact opposite of reality. Reducing any outcome will tend to
    increase relative differences between rates of experiencing the outcome while
    reducing relative differences between rates of avoiding the outcome. I explain this pattern fairly succinctly with respect to school disparities in references 1 to 3 and more elaborately with regard to other issues as well in reference 4.

    Reference 5 describes data from the Rhode Island ACLU’s 2013 study indicating that reductions in discipline rates between the 2004-05 and 2011-12 school years were accompanied by increased relative racial differences in discipline rates. Collected in reference 6 are descriptions of instances where similar patterns have been recently observed around the country.

    The same statistical pattern underlies the larger relative racial differences in suspension rates in in elementary school than in high school. Though the article quotes
    an education professor’s statement stressing the large number of suspensions in elementary school, it is precisely because suspensions in elementary school are so much less common than in high school – according to the article, 17,000 in elementary school between 2004 and 2012 compared with 17,944 suspensions in high school in the 2012-13 year alone – that one should expect relative differences in suspension rates to
    be larger, though relative differences in rates of avoiding such suspension to
    be smaller, in elementary school than in high schoo4. The situation can be compared to that reflected in Table 8 of reference 4, which shows that relative racial differences
    in rates of suspension are larger, while relative differences in rates of avoiding discipline are smaller, in pre-school than in K-12. The table also shows that to the extent that the strength of the forces causing suspension rates to differ can be measured, it is approximately the same in pre-school as in K-12.
    1. “Things government doesn’t know about racial disparities,” The Hill (Jan. 28, 2014).
    2. “The Paradox of Lowering Standards,” Baltimore Sun (Aug. 5, 2013)
    3. “Misunderstanding of Statistics Leads to Misguided Law Enforcement Policies,” Amstat News (Dec. 2012)
    4. “Race and Mortality Revisited,” Society (July/Aug. 2014)
    5. Rhode Island Disparities subpage of the Discipline Disparities page of
    6. 5.

  6. ShadrachSmith says:

    school-to-prison pipeline.

    Hold on there little puppy, the school didn’t make those babies into criminals. The Great Society did.

  7. William B. Palazzo says:

    Really? I’m shocked, absolutley shocked. Did Rev. Al Sharpton hear about this? I’m quite sure he would have a great answer to this problem. Give him a call.

  8. What about providing students who are caught up in these kinds of disruptive educational environments with the choice to attend a different school?

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