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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

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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