By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The 2015-16 school year is only two-weeks-old and thousands of school children have launched a new year of academic preparation.
According to a new study released by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, Black students will experience either suspension, expulsion at a higher rate than White students who attended public schools in 13 southern states, where the situation is most prevalent.
According to the report, public schools in these states were responsible for more than half of all suspensions and exclusions of Black students nationwide.
Nationally, over three million public school students received at least one out-of-school suspension and 130,000 were expelled during the 2011-2012 academic year, according to a U.S. Department of Education report released in 2014.
“Black kids on the whole are suspended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with safety,” says report co-author Shaun Harper of the study.
The 13 states named in the study are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
In Virginia, 42,999 Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year. Blacks were 24 percent of students in school districts across the state, but comprised 51 percent of suspensions and 41 percent of expulsions.
The researchers examined more than 3,000 school districts in those states. In 132 of those districts, they found, the suspension and expulsion rates of Blacks were off the charts, with suspension rates far greater than their representation in the student body.
“Blacks are only 24 percent of students enrolled in public schools in those states, yet they are 48 percent of students suspended, 49 percent of students expelled,” Harper says. “There are 84 districts where Blacks were 100 percent of students suspended from school.”
The new study is not the first to document such disparities. Other researchers have argued that schools use zero-tolerance discipline policies to, in effect, criminalize misdeeds such as dress code violations or talking back to a teacher.
The findings come as no surprise to critics of school discipline policies. Deborah Fowler is with Texas Appleseed, a public-interest law firm that conducted one of the most exhaustive studies of school suspensions and expulsions in Texas.
“In Texas, out-of-school suspensions have decreased by 20 percent over the last few years,” she notes, “but as the numbers decrease, the disparities for Black students increase.”
In Virginia, State Superintendent Steve Staples said educators are working to address the problems.
“We agree the numbers are troubling,” he says. Staples added that Virginia is tackling the problem through better training of teachers and administrators.
And, he added, those efforts are showing some results: “We’ve seen the short-term-suspension numbers drop, the long-term suspensions drop, the referrals to law enforcement drop.”
Dr. Stephanie D.B. Johnson, an Assistant Professor Coordinator of MA in Educational Leadership at Hampton University said the report is not surprising.
“Minority students and students of color in the South have been treated differently mostly because school functions are based on middle class cultures,” said Johnson. “Thus, students and parents not from that culture see socialization differently in school settings.
Economic data correlates with this same discipline trend. Parents who are not from the middle or higher socio-economic classes often time are unaware of advocating for their children. These parents have greater trust in the schools to do what they think is best for their children.
To change these statistics, Johnson said parents, community leaders, along with other organizations will have to begin to work collaboratively with school divisions to plan and execute better strategies to discipline students versus the use of suspensions and expulsions.
“Zero tolerance as a practice does not give students who do not possess middle class values an opportunity to learn a successful way to function in building life skills before they begin to spiral down a behavioral super highway without any turns in sight,” she continued.
“It is easier to train children through positive examples than it is to catch them doing something wrong and then give punitive consequences.”
The New Journal and Guide looked at the suspension rates for nine school divisions in Virginia: Franklin, Hampton, Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Richmond, Suffolk and Virginia Beach in a given year.
The report looks at the total number of students in the school divisions, total number of suspensions, percentage of Black students who were suspended and the impact of the disparity compared to White students.
With the exception of Virginia Beach, which had the largest number of students of all of the divisions the Guide specifically perused, the other school divisions, the Guide notes, were majority Black.
The Beach has 70,878 students total, 4112 were suspended. Black students made up 26.1 percent of the student populations, but 49.8 of the students who were suspended.
Franklin has 1259 students, there were 217 suspensions. Blacks students made up 76.3 percent of the student population and 88 percent of those suspended.
Norfolk has 33,581 students, 5508 suspensions. Black students made up 62.1 percent of the student populations and 77 .7 percent of the students suspended from the school division.
Portsmouth has 14,785 students, 2024 who were suspended. Black students made up 69 percent of the student population and 81.1 percent of those students suspended.
School Discipline Inequities by Sex
Boys were 65 percent of Black students suspended from K-12 public schools in the 13 southern states.
Despite this, when compared to girls from other racial/ethnic groups, Black girls were severely and most disproportionately affected by school discipline policies and practices.
Nationally, Blacks were 45% of girls suspended and 42% of girls expelled from K-12 public schools, which was highest among all racial/ethnic groups.
Across the southern states, Black girls comprised 56% of suspensions and 45% of expulsions, both of which were also highest among all girls.
In 10 southern states, Blacks were suspended most often among girls.
Blacks were 35% of boys suspended and 34% of boys expelled from K-12 public schools in the United States. Across the southern states, Black boys comprised 47% of suspensions and 44% of expulsions, which was highest among all racial/ethnic groups. In 11 southern states, Blacks were suspended most often among boys.
Authors of the report said they hoped this report will be useful to parents and families, educators and school leaders, policymakers, journalists, and a wide range of community stakeholders (NAACP chapters, religious congregations, activists, etc.).
For every state, the report also highlights districts in which school discipline policies and practices most disproportionately impact Black students. “Our aim is to equip anyone concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and the educational mistreatment of Black youth with numbers they can use to demand justice from school boards, educational leaders, and elected officials,” the authors said.
You are able see the total report, state by state at the website www.gse.upenn.edu/equity/SouthernStates