But researchers also found that suspension rates are lower in secondary schools that use threat assessment guidelines, which provide procedures for examining the intent and risks associated with student misbehavior.
Even more, racial gaps are narrower for long-term suspensions in schools that used such guidelines, according to the report by Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia and JustChildren, a child advocacy program of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“The zero-tolerance mind-set has taught us that the only way to make schools safe is to remove students who misbehave,” said Angela Ciolfi, legal director of JustChildren. But the report’s findings, she said, show that “school safety and keeping young people in school go hand in hand.”
Suspensions are a concern, experts say, because they have been linked to academic failure, dropping out and juvenile justice involvement.
“We know the more you suspend a student, the more likely they are to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system,” Cornell said.
In other findings, the report said black females are more than twice as likely to be suspended as their white counterparts. Other research shows that racial gaps in discipline persist even after experts control for poverty and other factors, the report said.
Racial disparities are not uncommon in student discipline and have been a focus of efforts nationally and in other states. In Maryland, education officials are scheduled to consider regulations next month requiring districts to create plans to reduce racial gaps.
In Virginia, lawmakers approved a measure this year to establish threat assessment teams in all state public schools, a change researchers say will keep more students in class.
“We’ve got an effective alternative to zero tolerance that allows schools to administer discipline in a proportional, reasonable manner that does not require suspension,” said Cornell, a professor at U-Va.’s Curry School of Education.
Students still face consequences for misbehavior, he said, but “sending them home is the easiest and least effective thing we do in schools for discipline.”
The report found 15 percent fewer short-term suspensions and 25 percent fewer long-term suspensions in schools using special threat assessment guidelines created at U-Va. in the years after the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colo.
Cornell said such assessments allow school leaders to consider context and other factors. “We don’t want to overreact to the mild cases or underreact to the really serious cases,” he said.
The report is based on statewide data across grade levels from the 2011-12 academic year at nearly 1,800 Virginia public schools.
Among Virginia’s elementary school students, short-term suspension rates were 3.1 percent for white males and 6.4 percent for black males. In middle school, rates were 10.3 for white males and 20.6 for black males, and in high school, 10.7 percent and 19.4 percent, respectively, the report said.
Researcher Daniel J. Losen, who has studied racial disparities and suspension on a national level, said the report adds to a growing conversation about alternative discipline approaches. Losen said the report found 65 percent of short-term suspensions were for non-violent acts, such as defiance, disruption and cellphone use.
“What this report suggests to me,” he said, “is that Virginia could do a lot more by extending this problem-solving approach to all the minor misconduct.”