Acton Institute Powerblog

The School Suspension Quagmire

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ClassroomThe harsh discipline policies at schools across the nation are now under close scrutiny. Last week, Secretary of Education John King criticized the ‘zero-tolerance’ discipline policies of many charter schools across the country. King claimed that the complicated issues surrounding school discipline were being oversimplified into a binary process at many charter schools that led to a higher number of suspensions.

This is a problem that exists across public, private, and charter schools around the country: students are suspended and expelled over minor and first time offenses often prompting them to not finish their education. A 2014 report from The Civil Rights Project highlighted some of the success in California schools towards easing their harsh discipline policies to the benefit of many students and especially California’s minority populations.

The report’s findings relied on new information regarding the past several school years from the California Department of Education. In the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years there was a decrease in the number of students suspended across ethnic groups and especially in the most often suspended demographics – Black and Native American students. Black students had the largest decline in suspensions with 3 less per 100 students than in previous years.

The data shows that schools in California are narrowing the racial divide in school discipline and the reliance on out-of-school suspension (OSS). In California, 500 school districts reported decreased OSS rates while only 245 districts reported increases. Even with the new decreases in OSS rates there are still large racial disparities in the number suspensions that are occurring. The number of suspensions that happen in the U.S. hurts the poor and minority students that most often receive them, and impede graduation rates among these students. One positive example the report cites is Baltimore City where decreased suspension rates actually led to increased graduation rates in the district.

The OSS problem mainly exists with the overabundance of suspension for minor offenses such as ‘disruption’ or ‘willful defiance.’ These catch-all categories include other minor offenses such as failure to do homework or not paying attention. Suspension as a punishment for offenses like this fails to address the problems in the students’ behavior and increases the likelihood of dropout and delinquency. And unfortunately the largest racial gaps often occur within these largely subjective discipline categories.

The results toward racial equality in school discipline is encouraging in California but still requires significant work. Overall the study found that OSS rates out of every hundred students In Los Angeles dropped from 12.1 to 7.1 for Black students; 3.1 to 1.7 for Latino students; and 2.4 to 1.0 for White students. While the racial gap in LA is one of the lowest in the state it still points to the problems inherent in the disciplinary process. With more research coming out each year about the connections between high school suspension, expulsion, delinquency, and the school-to-prison pipeline, these reforms are important steps to take in reducing discriminatory punishment and high numbers of minority youths in juvenile and adult detention centers.

The problems in school discipline have many different causes, some of which are named in the report. However, what we are not talking about enough in this country is the role of parents in school discipline. In communities where the family has broken down, and parents are either trapped by unemployment or multiple jobs, the moral formation of children suffers. In previous generations, school suspensions were things that kids avoided at all costs because it meant facing one’s parents. It is likely that those days are over.

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Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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