By MOTOKO RICH
Published: August 7, 2012
Students with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be suspended from school as nondisabled students, with the highest rates among black children with disabilities.
According to a new analysis of Department of Education data, 13 percent of disabled students in kindergarten through 12th grade were suspended during the 2009-2010 school year, compared with 7 percent of students without disabilities. Among African-American children with disabilities, which included those with learning difficulties, the rate is even higher: one out of every four was suspended at least once during that school year.
The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted the study of data from the federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights, which originally released the raw statistics in March.
Policy makers and civil rights leaders worry about out-of-school suspensions because they are often a precursor to students dropping out of school and can raise a child’s risk of future incarceration. School districts with high suspension rates also tend to be correlated with lower student achievement as measured by test scores.
The analysis, which reviewed data at the state and district levels, found that in 10 states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware and Illinois, more than a quarter of African-American students with disabilities were suspended in 2009-2010. In Illinois, the rate was close to 42 percent. New York and Florida were not included because of problems with the data submitted.
“That’s a very disturbing pattern because kids with disabilities are supposed to be getting additional supports and counseling and behavioral support,” said Daniel J. Losen, senior education law and policy associate with the UCLA Civil Rights Project and an author of the report. “Kids with disabilities make up a very large proportion of the kids who are in the juvenile justice system, so it’s a very, very disturbing finding.”
In some districts, black male students with disabilities were suspended at a strikingly high rate. In Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, the report’s authors found that close to 92 percent of all black males with disabilities had been suspended one or more times during 2009-2010, and in Memphis, nearly 53 percent of all black males with disabilities had been suspended that year.
Black students in general are more likely to be suspended than any other racial group, although Native Americans and Latinos are also suspended at much higher rates than white students. One out of every six black students was suspended at least once in 2009-2010, compared with one in 13 Native Americans and one in 14 Latinos, and just one in 20 white students.
Some districts suspend black students at well above the national average. Pontiac School District in Michigan, for example, suspended 67.5 percent of its African-American students in 2009-2010 and East Jasper Consolidated School District in Heidelberg, Miss., suspended 63.5 percent of its black students.
Concerned by similar statistics in several districts in Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed complaints with the federal education department’s civil rights office against school districts in five counties, including Escambia, Okaloosa and Suwannee. The complaints assert that these districts imposed harsh disciplinary measures — including out-of-school suspensions — on African-American students at much higher rates than white students.
Latinos were also suspended at high rates in places like the Hartford School District, which suspended 44 percent of its Latino students in 2009-10, and Thornton Township High School District in a southern suburb of Chicago, which suspended close to 42 percent of its Latino students that year.
While such disparities are echoed across thousands of school districts, the authors of the report found that some districts did not use suspension frequently.
Russell Skiba, professor at the Indiana University School of Education, said that many districts used suspension as a first rather than last resort. “They feel a need to keep the schools safe through discipline,” he said. “And they have not looked at other more preventive options.”
Advocates for disabled students suggested that high-suspending districts might be able to learn from those that did not often resort to such disciplinary measures.
“What’s most interesting is not who is suspending kids, but who isn’t,” said Diane Howard, staff attorney for juvenile justice and education for the National Disability Rights Network. “We want to take this report and say we know that viable alternatives exist and school districts and states both rich and poor are choosing not to suspend kids, so it’s not inevitable. So how do we get the districts with high suspension rates to learn from that and change their practices?”
The report’s authors did not analyze the demographics of the districts with the highest rates of suspension, but suggested that previous studies had shown that districts from across the socio-economic spectrum could lower out-of-school suspension rates by implementing positive disciplinary systems.
“There are schools that have low-income, high-minority populations where they don’t have high suspension rates,” said Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. Mr. Parker added that schools could lower suspensions by “creating an environment in which students are less likely to misbehave.”