No turning back, now

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 4/29/2018, 11:43 p.m.
A new Government Accountability Office report released last month, K-12 Education:

Children’s Defense Fund

A new Government Accountability Office report released last month, K-12 Education: Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities, reminds us once again that suspensions and expulsions continue at high rates and offer grave risks to students. The report by this federal monitoring agency reviews data from the Education Department’s

Civil Rights Data Collection on school discipline trends across the country, provides a more in-depth look at discipline approaches and challenges faced in five states, and reviews past efforts by the departments of education and justice to identify and address disparities and discrimination.

The GAO reminds us all of the profound ways school discipline affects students and can impair both their childhood and adulthood. For example, “research has shown that students who are suspended from school lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time, are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.” It also notes children experiencing school discipline often have behavioral issues affected by challenges outside the classroom, which are often more acute for poor children – especially children of color, who are more likely to be poor.

The report makes a strong case that there is still much work to be done and we must insist that this administration keep moving forward with solutions – building on what we know is working. We must resist current attempts to move us backward and instead protect students from discriminatory practices. There are good superintendent-led examples out there to build on.

The GAO’s analysis examines six categories of discipline: out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment and school-related arrests. It examines the data by race/ethnicity, sex, disability and poverty level, and included studies of illustrative school districts in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Texas. Overall, the GAO found that Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were all disproportionately disciplined in the 2013-2014 school year – the latest available data – and that disproportionality is widespread and persistent despite the level of school poverty, type of disciplinary action, or type of public school attended: e.g., traditional, magnet, charter, alternative or special education.

A closer look at some of the sobering findings:

• Race not poverty explains the disparities in discipline. This report is the first time discipline rates were analyzed by poverty level, and results show that race is a more important factor in discipline decisions than poverty. Even in the most affluent school districts, 7.5 percent of Black boys had been given an out-of-school suspension compared to 1.8 percent of White boys. On the other hand, disproportionality “was particularly acute for Black students in high-poverty schools, where they were overrepresented by nearly 25 percentage points in suspensions from school.”

• Black students represented 39 percent of students suspended from school even though they accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students. These disparities can be seen as early as preschool, where Black children accounted for 47 percent of students suspended from preschool even though they were only 19 percent of all public preschool students. Black boys have the highest rate of out-of-school suspension overall and Black girls have the highest rate of all girls.