School suspensions, the removal of students from classes for a specific period of time for a violation of school rules, are one of those topics that never seems to be resolved. The Manhattan Institute held its snow-delayed forum discussing the release of a report, “School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, 2012 – 2016.” Max Eden, the author of the study avers; while data shows far more suspensions of Afro-American males than any other group it does not necessarily mean that the suspension system is discriminatory: correlation does not mean causation. Over the last few years the Department has sharply reduced suspensions.. Eden examined student and teacher surveys of school climate and reports that during the recent (2015-16) period sharp decreases in school suspensions coupled with an easing of the Discipline Code; both students and teacher in high poverty schools report increases discipline problems, in sharp contrast to the Department of Education who praise their own efforts. Lois Herrera, the Department rep had her own set of favorable data and Derek Jackson, the Director Local 237, the School Safety Agent union pointed to significant changes in the methods of reporting, what had been a summons, has become a warning letter, possession of marijuana is not longer a crime, etc., Jackson argues the city data is far from reality. Read the report here. Howard Husock, a Manhattan Institute vice president did an excellent job of moderating a contentious session;.
I wrote about the issue a month ago, “The Suspension Conundrum: Do Suspensions Improve Behavior and Academic Outcomes for All Students or Are Suspensions a Pipeline to Dropping Out and Prison,” Read here.
On one side of the fence the “pipeline to prison” folk who argue that reducing or eliminating suspensions would dramatically improve outcomes for young men of color versus the, for lack of a better term, law and order folk, who argue that disruptive students interfere with learning and erode outcomes for the other students in the class.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a Harvard historian whose research focuses on racial criminalization and the origins of the carceral state is the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010), Muhammad would argue that extremely high suspension rates of Afro-American males is a continuation of policies that emanate from the end of reconstruction to Jim Crow laws, to prisons that re-enslaved blacks continuing up to modern day America, crack laws meant prison, powder cocaine, a fine, and even today opiate abuse, mostly in white communities is a health crisis, possession of crack in a black neighborhood means prison.
For the sake of this argument lets decouple the prison “criminalization” issue for school discipline.
For me, suspension is a post-event response, we require pre-event interventions. Are students, who are subject to high poverty risk load factors, more likely to be suspended, and, if so, can we intervene early to correct unacceptable behavior before suspendable events?
Unfortunately the feds, the United States Department of Education response, the Obama-Duncan-King approach bypasses schools, school districts and states and imposes well meaning and deeply flawed “solutions.” $4.3 billions in Race to the Top dollars encouraged states to impose student test scored based teacher evaluations, the Common Core and Common Core based accountability testing and succeeded in alienating teachers and parents and are responsible for beginning an assault on public education.
The attack on student suspensions comes from the USDE. Secretaries of Education issue “Dear Colleague Letters,” in theory clarifying laws or regulations, in reality a way of threatening school districts and states with a loss of federal funding if they fail to comply with specific laws or regulations as interpreted by the Secretary.
In January, 2014 the Secretary of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter,
The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
The letter begins with a supportive tone,
The Departments strongly support schools in their efforts to create and maintain safe and orderly educational environments that allow our nation’s students to learn and thrive. Many schools have adopted comprehensive, appropriate, and effective programs demonstrated to: (1) reduce disruption and misconduct; (2) support and reinforce positive behavior and character development; and (3) help students succeed. Successful programs may incorporate a wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution, restorative practices, counseling, and structured systems of positive interventions. The Departments recognize that schools may use disciplinary measures as part of a program to promote safe and orderly educational environments.
The letter changes tone and conflates suspensions with violations of federal law,
Regardless of the program adopted, Federal law prohibits public school districts from discriminating in the administration of student discipline based on certain personal characteristics.
The Departments initiate investigations of student discipline policies and practices at particular schools based on complaints the Departments receive from students, parents, community members, and others about possible racial discrimination in student discipline.3 The Departments also may initiate investigations based on public reports of racial disparities in student discipline combined with other information, or as part of their regular compliance monitoring activities.
Schools are reminded, however, that they must ensure that their discipline policies and practices comply with all applicable constitutional requirements and Federal laws, including civil rights statutes and regulations.
The letter makes a case for what is referred to as “disproportionality,”
The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC),5 conducted by OCR, has demonstrated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups6 tend to be disciplined more than their peers. For example, African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
The Departments recognize that disparities in student discipline rates in a school or district may be caused by a range of factors. However, research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.7 Although statistical and quantitative data would not end an inquiry under Title IV or Title VI, significant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the Federal civil rights laws.
The use of the term, “research suggests” is disturbing, as is the use of “may be engaging in racial discrimination.” The letter goes on to fully support the school “pipeline to prison” trope, and, not so subtly encourages school districts to abandon suspensions and implement alternatives to suspension,
Schools are safer when all students feel comfortable and are engaged in the school community, and when teachers and administrators have the tools and training to prevent and address conflicts and challenges as they arise. Equipping school officials with an array of tools to support positive student behavior – thereby providing a range of options to prevent and address misconduct – will both promote safety and avoid the use of discipline policies that are discriminatory or inappropriate.
The feds skip to a chilling determination, the referring of a student for disciplinary action, like sending to a counselor, or a dean or the principal may be a discriminatory act on the part of the school, “…the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office for misconduct is a decision point that can raise concerns, to the extent that it entails the subjective exercise of unguided discretion in which racial biases or stereotypes may be manifested.
In their investigations of school discipline, the Departments have noted that the initial referral of a student to the principal’s office for misconduct is a decision point that can raise concerns, to the extent that it entails the subjective exercise of unguided discretion in which racial biases or stereotypes may be manifested. If a school refers students for discipline because of their race, the school has engaged in discriminatory conduct regardless of whether the student referred has engaged in misbehavior. And even if the referrals do not ultimately lead to the imposition of disciplinary sanctions, the referrals alone result in reduced classroom time and academic instruction for the referred student. Furthermore, if a sanction from a discriminatory referral becomes part of the student’s school record, it could potentially enhance the penalty for subsequent misconduct and follow the student throughout the student’s academic career. Therefore, it is incumbent upon a school to take effective steps to eliminate all racial discrimination in initial discipline referrals.
The letter raises the legal principle of “disparate impact,”
… policy itself does not mention race – and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.
“Disparate impact” equates to discrimination.
Bottom line: if greater percentages of students in “protected categories” are suspended this is evidence of discrimination.
The letter goes on for page after page spelling out scores of examples and defining, well, sort of defining which situations would be violations of federal statute. Simply, if you suspend more Afro-American than students white students the feds will consider this data evidence of discrimination on the part of the school district.
The larger unaddressed issue is the authority of the feds to impose these types of rules on schools. Aren’t issues like suspension policy, and curriculum, and teacher certification, etc., issues best left to the states? The new Every School Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires each state to create a state accountability plan – namely, identifying the lowest achieving Title 1 schools in the state. The easing of the federal role under the current Secretary may result in the rescission of the suspension “Dear Colleague” letter, and, probably also abandoning the active pursuit of school districts for alleged discriminatory acts around suspension policies.
New York State juvenile justice statistics show that juvenile crime is heavily concentrated in a few neighborhoods. You can superimpose poverty by zip code over the same areas as well as poverty risk load factors, not surprisingly the same schools with high suspension rates are located in high crime communities along with unemployment, shelters, etc. Within these geographic catchments schools have high rates of suspension, and, a few virtually no suspensions. Are the schools accepting chaos? Or, have they figured out alternatives?
A number of years ago I worked in a consultant capacity on a high suspension high school campus. The Department school safety folk showed us how to map suspensions: identifying the geographic location in the school of the precipitating event. The most common area: classrooms or outside of classrooms of inexperienced and/or less effective teachers. We worked with specific teachers, improving the quality of instruction and reduced suspensions.
I don’t oppose the restorative practices, I’m just not confident that interceding after the event is an effective approach. Unless what takes place during the period of suspension: counseling, meeting with the parent, etc., improves behavior, the suspension process is not effective.
I fear we are not selecting school leaders with the proper skills as well as properly providing teachers with the requisite skills. Once again, the “answer” is not in Washington.
What are the qualities of teachers, school leaders and school communities with low or no suspensions in high suspension catchment areas?
A topic for another blog: for me, the crux of the issue.