School suspensions drop, but black students still disciplined at higher rate

Student suspensions decreased 20 percent between 2014 and 2012, but many students lack access to advanced classes, early education, federal data released Tuesday shows.

Eric Gay/AP/File
Seventh grader Jayden Witter, foreground, discusses a recent conflict with another student solved through restorative justice, which included teachers and students gathering in circles for discussions, at Ed White Middle School, Oct. 16, in San Antonio. School districts in New York, Los Angeles, and Denver are just some of those that have moved away from discipline policies that relied heavily on suspensions.

Public schools across the country suspended nearly 20 percent fewer students in 2014 than they did in 2012, according to new federal data released Tuesday, a positive sign amid a mixed picture on how the nation’s schools serve students of color.

Some 2.8 million students were suspended from public schools nationwide during the 2013-14 school year, a sign that efforts by the Obama administration to curb the use of suspensions, which activists say are linked to higher dropout rates and a greater likelihood of entering the criminal justice system, are working.

But there are also significant racial disparities, both in the use of discipline and in students’ access to experienced teachers and advanced math and science classes, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection, released every two years by the US Education Department.

Black students were nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, and twice as likely to be expelled. The same pattern was apparent in preschools, where black children represent 19 percent of all preschoolers, but 47 percent of pre-schoolers receiving an out of school suspension.

“Fewer suspensions is an important sign of progress,” Education Secretary John King Jr. told The Washington Post. “But I don’t think there’s any way you can look at this data and not come away with a tremendous sense of urgency about continuing to close our equity gaps”

Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended in K-12 schools, though they are not more likely to be suspended in preschool, the survey found. They are also more likely to be physically restrained or secluded than other students.

Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights called the 20 percent reduction in suspensions across the country “breathtaking.”

But “these disparities beg for more districts to follow the lead of places like Baltimore and Chicago, which are dramatically limiting the use of suspensions in early grades,” she told the Associated Press.

Students’ access to advanced classes in math and science is also limited across the country. Only 48 percent of the nation’s high schools offer courses in calculus. At schools that serve predominately black and Latino students, that number drops to 33 percent.

King said the recently passed federal Every Students Succeeds Act could help spur further changes. In addition to test scores, the law also allows states to hold schools accountable for measures such as student absences and how schools discipline students, The Washington Post reports.

"A systemic failure to educate some groups of children as well as others tears at the moral fabric of the nation," he said in a phone call with reporters. "What sets the U.S. apart from any other country is the idea that opportunity is universal. These data show that we still fall far short of that ideal."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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