State Releases Report On Suspensions, Expulsions For All Public School Students
Huge racial disparities; rates high for charter schools, technical high schools, troubled school districts
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
June 05, 2013
State education officials issued a report Wednesday that showed huge racial disparities in the rates of school suspension and expulsion, as well as higher rates at charter schools, technical high schools, and in troubled districts in the midst of education reform.
Overall, 8.6 percent of students — 47,528 pupils — were suspended or expelled during the 2011-12 school year. That number has declined 14.6 percent over the past five years.
But State Board of Education members, who received the report at their regular monthly meeting, were concerned by the numbers and particularly by how much the rate varies across some groups of students, districts and schools.
The report showed that black and Hispanic males were suspended or expelled at two to three times the rate of their white counterparts; black and Hispanic females were suspended or expelled at three to five times the rate of their white counterparts. The figures include in-school and out-of-school suspensions.
"All kinds of alarms are going off in my head," said Theresa Hopkins-Staten, vice chairwoman of the state board. "It's just alarming that one cohort, one group of students, regardless of where they are, rise to the top disproportionately with respect to suspensions."
Hopkins-Staten said it might be that students of color are suspended for a particular offense, while other students get different treatment. She said a "candid conversation" about race and culture is necessary.
Joseph J. Vrabely Jr., a board member, agreed, saying, "I think there is a cultural piece that is impossible to quantify, but we don't spend enough time discussing the 800-pound gorilla in the room. … We are kicking the can down the road until we understand that cultural piece."
The state education department produced the report as a follow-up to one it released last month on suspension figures on children under the age of 7. That report, requested by Jamey Bell, the state's child advocate, showed that almost 1,000 kindergartners and first-graders were suspended last year. It raised widespread concern about suspension and expulsion figures.
"No matter how much research we do, no matter how many explanations are offered, in the earliest grades for some districts and some schools, the rates are simply too high,'' said Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor. "There is no amount of benchmarking or explaining that's going to change that. We need to find a better way for our youngest students."
Pryor said that while the state's decline in the numbers of suspensions and expulsions is encouraging, "there are standout schools and districts where the numbers are simply too high and frankly, that reality is even more pronounced in the context of the overall state decline."
Pryor said that research will be continued this summer into the reasons for the suspensions and expulsions. Procedures will be in place to track the numbers and help districts and schools that need to bring down numbers, Pryor said.
The report said that about a third of all suspensions and expulsions result from behaviors that include fighting, threatening, physical or verbal confrontation, property damage, theft, or are drug- or alcohol-related. The other two-thirds result from "school policy violations," the report said, including disrespect, obscene language, disruptive behavior, and skipping class. The report shows that the rate of suspension for school policy violations varies greatly from school to school and district to district.
Among the schools with the highest rates of suspension and expulsion are the Achievement First public charter schools. At the elementary level, the Achievement First schools had the four highest percentages of students receiving at least one suspension or expulsion. At the top of that list was Achievement First Hartford Academy at 32.5 percent and Elm City College Preparatory School at 26 percent.
At Achievement First Hartford Academy's middle school — grades six through eight — almost half of all student had received at least one suspension or expulsion.
"We think our suspension numbers are too high. We are, in light of this analysis, working to reduce them," said Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First, a nonprofit organization that runs and manages public charter schools. But, she added, many of the suspensions are in-school suspensions that last only a few hours.
By state law, an in-school suspension occurs if a child is removed from a classroom for more than 90 minutes. Toll said that Achievement First's analysis of numbers at its Hartford academy showed that 88 percent of children were back in class within three hours.
In addition, she said, a small number of children — about 20 percent —accounted for 80 percent of the suspensions.
She said the charter school organization is going to focus on bringing down its numbers by providing more support to students who are repeatedly suspended; making sure that students removed from the classroom return sooner; and finding alternatives to suspension.
The rate of suspensions and expulsions also ran significantly higher in the 10 districts with the lowest performance statewide. They are Bridgeport, East Hartford, Hartford, Meriden, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwich, Waterbury and Windham.
The rate of suspension or expulsion at technical high schools is also considerably higher than at most high schools, at 25.4 percent. In some cases, suspensions may be for infractions such as forgetting safety goggles.
In New London, where the percentage of high school students receiving at least one suspension or expulsion was 27.8 percent, Superintendent Nick Fischer said the district is working "very actively to reduce" that number.
He said the district is working through such programs as positive behavioral support and intervening with students earlier to understand what is motivating them.
But he said to really address this problem, school districts need more funding for mental health services; for more alternative school programs; and for more staff available for in-school suspension.
"We cannot make excuses for what's happening, but you have to get beyond gathering data," Fischer said. "There are ways of addressing this, but they cost money."
Courant Staff Writer Chloe Miller contributed to this story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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