"African-American males are punished with out-of-school suspensions at three times the rate of white males

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Discipline and civil rights
in American state schools

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

22 November 2011: Discipline may be necessary for ensuring responsible student behavior, but “the application of discipline is unfair and unequal” in American state schools. Moreover, many student disciplinary practices employed by local state school systems may result in violations of US Civil Rights Law. Those are the findings of Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice, a report by Dan Losen of The Civil Rights Project of the University of California at Los Angeles. 

• Zero tolerance
• Case studies
• Concerns & culture
• Unanswered questions

The study, published in October 2011, is receiving national attention from urban state school districts across the United States. It documents a trend in which minority students routinely receive major penalties, including school suspensions, for minor offenses.

Analyzing data from the US Department of Education, the report found that African-American males are punished with out-of-school suspensions at three times the rate of white males, and African-American females are suspended at four times the rate of white females. Disabled students are also suspended disproportionately. Only five per cent of all out-of-school suspensions are for dangerous infractions, such as violence or possession of guns or drugs; the remaining ninety-five percent fall into two categories, “disruptive behavior” and “other”.

The numbers are huge – 3.3 million youth, or seven per cent of the public school students in the United States, have been suspended at least once – and the report shows that the suspensions for minor infractions are having a detrimental effect on learning as students miss “important instructional time and are at greater risk of disengagement and diminished educational opportunities.” The report urges the federal government to begin to collect detailed data down to the school level on the large number of students kicked out each day.

According to Losen, “Discipline is a core indicator of whether schools are effective. We need good data, collected in a uniform way. It’s just plain wrong in an age of data-driven reform to have a scattershot approach to such an important indicator of success or failure. The bottom line is that schools are not proud of the large number of kids being kicked out, so there are no incentives to report these numbers to the public.”

Zero tolerance
For decades, American state schools used suspensions as a primary disciplinary measure. According to the Department of Education, the rate of suspensions doubled between 1970 and 2000. By 2001, 3.1 million students had been suspended from school.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 raised standards for academic performance in American public schools and also required schools to address bullying. As a result, anti-bullying measures became widespread in the United States, and the general public became more accepting of harsher school disciplinary measures.

School anti-bullying techniques often emulate the zero tolerance styles of American policing. Bullies are automatically suspended or expelled from their schools under inflexible rules intended to make education safer, more accessible, and less stressful for children. In an effort to provide a continuum of consistent and effective disciplinary policies, schools began to apply out-of-school suspensions to a wide range of inappropriate behaviors that previously merited lesser punishments. In addition, according to the Department of Education, suspensions became longer. The theory is that teachers can teach better and well-behaved students can learn more when the disruptive students are removed from the school.

In Texas, where zero tolerance regulations are common, 31 per cent of state school students have been suspended, according to a study by Texas A&M University.

In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a Policy Statement on Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion which documented the social, emotional, and educational consequences of out-of-school suspensions and asked schools to consider alternatives.

Subsequent studies found that out-of-suspensions often lead to students’ dropping out of school entirely, and that the performance of “good” students doesn’t improve when the reputed troublemakers are taken away.

The American Bar Association, a professional organization of US attorneys, recently passed three resolutions calling for school administrators to reconsider suspensions as a disciplinary tool, and outlined procedures for limiting the disruption of students’ regular educational programs as a response to disciplinary problems.

In 2010, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that the fact that students with disabilities and African-American students, especially males, were suspended far more often than their white counterparts and often punished more severely for similar misdeeds indicated possible violations of US Civil Rights Law.

In 2011, Secretary Duncan and US Attorney General Eric Holder released new guidelines to help states and local school districts determine whether their discipline policies may have a disparate and unlawful impact on students.

Case studies
An examination of suspensions by the Rochester (NY) City School District reveals the complex pedagogical and cultural issues that underlie the disciplining of students. 

The Rochester City School District (RCSD) has about 33,000 students: 64 percent black; 22 percent Latino; 11 percent white; and 3 percent Asian. Eighty-six percent of students live in poverty, and 18 percent are disabled. 

During the 2006-2007 academic year, there were more than 11,000 suspensions in the RCSD involving 6,000 students. Students lost more than 55,000 days of classroom instruction. As a result of the District’s high suspension rate, Jean Claude Brizard, who was just beginning his tenure as RCSD Superintendent, initiated a reform of suspension procedures.

“We’re not going to stop suspending kids just to reduce the number,” Brizard told the media in 2008. “I believe in tough love but we have to put the practices in place to prevent the need for suspensions.” According to Brizard, “Suspensions are high because clarity and consistency are lacking. Students and parents need to know the exact consequences for behavioral problems, and teachers and principals need to apply them evenly.”

Brizard provoked the teachers union by criticizing some teachers for being afraid of students, particularly black students, and suggesting that many teachers needed to improve their classroom management skills, but the Superintendent’s main concern was the arbitrariness of disciplinary actions.

Brizard gave two examples, “If you’re five feet tall, African-American, wearing a do-rag (a piece of cloth used to cover the head) and headphones, and walking down a hall, you’ll get stopped by the sentry or some other adult. You’ll be asked to take off the do-rag and headphones. But if you’re six-foot-five, African-American, wearing a do-rag and headphones, walking down the same hallway with the same adults, no one will say anything. I’ve seen this happen in two different high schools.”

In another instance, a student was suspended for three days for running across an auditorium stage, a harsh punishment, according to Brizard, for an infraction for which the student would likely have received a detention at another school.

For years, school officials in Rochester could discipline students with two types of suspension: short-term, out-of-school suspensions of five days or less, which could be administered by school principals, and long-term, out-of-school suspensions of more than five days, which required the Superintendent’s approval.

To bring down the suspension rate and keep kids in school, Brizard formulated a system where students could be punished through an in-school suspension program.

Under the in-school suspension program, instead of being sent home, students with short-term suspensions are sent to designated rooms within their home schools for more individualized instruction on the day’s lessons, away from friends and classmates. Students with long-term suspensions must go to an “I’m Ready” program at a different location where they continue their instruction while receiving counseling and social support to help them transition back to their home schools.

During the 2008-2009 school year, the first year of the in-school suspension program, 4,877 students were in the program. Eighty-one percent of the students in the program were suspended for what were characterized as “minor infractions” or “other disruptive behaviors”. Twenty-eight percent of the students had disabilities.

“Prior to my arrival, virtually all students who were suspended received no alternative instruction during their suspension,” Brizard said. “This year’s in-school suspension program recovers almost all of those days. Only by keeping students in school and learning can we improve our students’ academic success and increase our graduation rate. Putting students on the street is not the answer.”

The new Rochester City School District disciplinary policy is based on Superintendent Brizard’s Regulations of Intervention and Discipline, a 30-page document that sets clear minimum and maximum penalties for the type, frequency, and severity of punishable behavior, along with a range of counseling and other intervention options. The documents were drafted by the Superintendent and his staff and reviewed by representatives of the Rochester City Council, Legal Aid Society, and other community organizations.

The recommended guidelines for dealing with a student caught smoking on school premises, for example, range from a teacher-student consultation to exclusion from participation on a sports team. Teachers must choose from a menu of incremental discipline options. First, however, the student’s parents are contacted and the student is referred to counseling. Suspension is the last resort.

The guidelines, essentially, are a prescription for behavior modification rather than zero tolerance, but the implementation and enforcement have drawn the wrath of teachers.

Concerns and culture
Teachers want more specificity and fewer options, a labor relations specialist for the teachers union told the local media. “Teachers have always wanted some clear guidelines, even when it comes down to things like headphones,” he said. “Either they’re allowed or they’re not”. Teachers, he said, “want a straight answer”, a one-size-fits-all approach, not a list of options to sort through.

Teachers also claim that the in-school suspension policy has made schools more dangerous by emboldening many suspended students who behave as if they have little to lose personally. Teachers claim that some students get into fights and roam the halls almost with impunity, as an in-school suspension – effectively, the maximum punishment – is not a sufficient deterrent. 

Teachers, as well as students and parents, call for more sentries and police resource officers at the high schools.

Superintendent Brizard didn’t dismiss the safety concerns and said he understood that some teachers are fearful of disciplining students for fear of retaliation. “I believe what our teachers tell us and trust them to bring legitimate concerns to my attention, and I’m committed to providing resources schools ask for,” he said. Still, Brizard asserted, many teachers in the RCSD need to improve their classroom management skills, rather than suspend students just to get them out of the classroom.

City Councilmember Adam McFadden echoed the Superintendent’s call for improved classroom management, noting that, while suspensions decreased during the first year of the in-school program, student arrests increased. “Some teachers are calling 911 [the telephone number for emergency services, including police] because throwing them in jail is a way to get around the policy,” said McFadden. “I attribute the spike in arrests to some adults who are making bad decisions. A lot of the kids are being arrested for mischief, not criminal behavior.”

Brizard often spoke of a decades-old and deeply-ingrained culture of defeatism within the Rochester City School District that he wanted to change. At a public meeting for the in-school suspension program, Brizard discussed an internal RCSD survey which found that over half the District’s teachers believed that their students were unable to learn because they live in poverty. “The fate of our children was pre-determined,” Brizard said of the attitides he wanted to transform. “Our kids were throwaways. It was much easier to put kids out on the street than to deal with them.”

Teachers, for their part, complain that the in-school suspension program fails to resolve the issues that led to the student’s suspension. Teachers union president Adam Urbanski called the program a “dumping ground” where students are not getting the right type of help. 

Many of the “cultural” issues might be sorted out with the detailed data collection recommended in the Civil Rights Project’s report, authored by Dan Losen: suspensions disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, type of infraction, days of instruction missed, and so on. 

At a public meeting, a parent of a student in the Rochester City School District called the large number of suspensions “an egregious abuse of power”, pointing out that teachers readily penalize students but that no one seems to be assessing teachers. Parents and the public should be presented with data about the suspensions and the schools and teachers involved, she said, adding, “I think you’ll see that it’s the same teachers behind most suspensions.”

Such data is guaranteed to make educators uncomfortable. Are they a sign of a strong and capable administration that sets firm limits? Or a weak administration that is incapable of controlling students? The data could be used negatively to criticize and shame teachers or positively to support and instruct them. But unless patterns are identified, it will remain difficult to identify and remedy any teachers’ subconscious biases and lack of ability to interact with students, as well as poor administrators. The collection and dissemination of detailed data is not known to be a part of the Rochester City School District’s in-school suspension program.

Unanswered questions
Superintendent Jean Claude Brizard is also no longer part of the Rochester City School District. He left in June 2011, after three years, to become Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago School District. Brizard’s tenure in Rochester was marked by controversy – “creative tension”, he called it – as he attempted to raise student graduation rates and academic performance by closing underperforming schools and opening new ones, challenging teacher effectiveness and tenure, and cutting the District’s staff, including teachers.

Brizard’s allies, especially in the business community and City Hall, regarded him as a visionary who blazed a path away from the District’s old way of doing things; his critics, mostly teachers and perhaps half of the school board, accused Brizard of “pushing rather than leading”, but many concede that his initiatives, including in-house suspensions, appear to be working.

Brizard was succeeded by Bolgen Vargas, a respected, experienced educator and former president of the Rochester school board. Interim Superintendent Vargas agrees there is a critical need to address the high suspension rate of minorities in urban schools across the nation, including students that attend schools in the RCSD.

“The African American male is significantly overrepresented when it comes to suspensions,” Vargas said. “A lot of these children need more love, more structure, and we need to make sure they get the proper help and attention from social service agencies who understand their needs. I know the Rochester City School District is responsible for educating each and every student, but we can’t do it alone. We need the community’s help.”

Vargas formed a team to deal with suspensions and was recently presented with a proposal drafted by the teachers union to revise the District’s disciplinary policy. The union’s proposal includes out-of-school suspensions for all violent behavior, counseling for students with emotional problems before they can return to school, health and social service assistance, mandatory parental involvement for suspended students, and community service for all suspended students. Resources to pay for the additional services are not identified.

During Jean Claude Brizard’s administration, Rochester’s in-school suspension program became the flashpoint in a struggle between forces that wanted to shake up old systems quickly and forces that felt they were being asked to make inordinate sacrifices. The circle of incriminations and blame may be more entrenched in Rochester than other American cities, but the larger questions regarding student discipline are not.

The biggest question, of course, is why are so many students misbehaving in the first place and what can schools do about it? Unraveling this question leads to many other related and difficult questions:

Are teachers unprepared to teach or do students come to school unprepared to learn? How much emphasis should be placed on poverty and its consequences for student achievement and attitudes? How can school districts provide more mental health support to students, such as anger management training and drug and alcohol counseling? Does the emphasis on testing and the need for quick and immediate improvement in student achievement encourage school officials to suspend students? What sensitivity or management training might teachers need, especially to relate better to young black males? How much parental involvement should be expected? Do in-school suspensions increase safety problems, or do they push safety problems out into the open? Do suspensions lead to more suspensions and put many youth on a school-to-prison trajectory?

Merely asking these questions evokes a less constrictive approach to student discipline as they sharpen the problem. Perhaps the onus on states and local school districts of monitoring their disciplinary practices for  civil rights violations will encourage solutions which balance safety, performance, and justice to a broad range of issues which vex public schools in the United States.

Selected references:
Dan Losen, Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice, National Education Policy Center, 2011.
Center for Law and Education, American Bar Association Calls for Action on High Quality Education, accessed at www.cleweb.org

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