D.C. Council member David Grosso’s push to prohibit public schools from suspending and expelling pre-kindergartners comes in response to a city report that found that 3- and 4-year-olds were punished with out-of-school suspension 181 times during the 2012-2013 school year.
That report, produced by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, represents city officials’ first attempt to produce a comprehensive picture of suspension and expulsion across both traditional and charter schools. Using data reported by schools, the agency found that about 10,000 of the city’s 80,000 public school students — or about 12 percent — were suspended at least once in 2012-2013.
Here are five other takeaways from the OSSE report:
1. D.C. Public Schools students are more likely to be suspended than charter school students.
Charter schools have garnered a lot of attention and criticism for expelling students at a far greater rate than traditional schools. In 2011-2012, charter schools expelled students at a rate 72 times higher than DCPS schools. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that charter students are actually less likely to be suspended, though the difference between the two sectors is less stark.
“That was a big eye-opener for me,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. “We’ve been getting beaten up for three years about the fact that DCPS doesn’t expel kids. Turns out they suspend a lot of them.”
DCPS declined to comment on the possible reasons for the discrepancy between the two sectors.
2. Black students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students, and the most disadvantaged students tend to be more likely to be suspended and expelled than their more affluent peers.
Nationwide, African American students are three times more likely to be suspended an expelled than white students, a trend that begins in preschool and that helped prompt Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to release national school discipline guidelines earlier this year.
In the District, the disparity is more stark: black students are six times more likely (and Latinos are twice as likely) to be suspended than white students.
Poor children are also more likely to be suspended than their peers who are not poor. In the graph below, “direct-certified” refers to students who are deemed eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL) because they receive welfare or food stamp benefits, or are homeless or in foster care.
Students with disabilities are also more likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers.
Could the disproportionate discipline rates be evidence of disproportionate misbehavior rather than racism or discrimination? No, according to researchers with the Equity Project at Indiana University. Yes, according to researchers writing in the Journal of Criminal Justice.
Eduardo Ferrer of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, an advocate for reforming the city’s juvenile justice system, is adamant: “The research is clear that implicit bias exists,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Youth of color are treated differently than caucasian youth for the same behavior. … Unless we confront and accept the contribution that implicit bias plays in discipline, we cannot proactively address it.”
3. Middle school students are more likely than other students to be suspended and expelled.
Eighth-graders are eight times more likely to be suspended than first-graders. Maybe it’s not surprising that middle-schoolers are likely to be kicked out of school than younger students, but they’re also more likely to be suspended or expelled than high-school students.
4. Suspension and expulsion rates vary widely by school.
According to the report:
*43 schools reported that they did not suspend or expel any students
*37 schools reported that they suspended at least 25 percent of students
*8 schools reported that they suspended at least 50 percent of students
5. The data OSSE used to compile its report is imperfect and probably incomplete.
The disproportionate suspension of different student groups in OSSE’s report is not based on an analysis of all suspensions, but only of those suspensions that are due to weapons, drugs, alcohol and violence — i.e., those required to be reported to the federal government.
Advocates, OSSE officials, lawmakers and others worry that the more lax rules around reporting discipline for other kinds of infractions — such as for failing to wear the proper school uniform, for example, or excessive tardiness — paints a skewed picture.
AppleTree Early Learning, for example, reported 81 out-of-school suspensions of pre-K students in 2012-2013 — nearly half the city total. But spokesman Barnaby Towns said that figure includes students who were sent home early in the day. Other schools might not count such half-days as suspensions, Towns said, which could make AppleTree officials look like strict disciplinarians when in fact they’re just more apt to report infractions than other schools.
Grosso’s bill would require more and more uniform discipline reporting, something that agency officials say is needed in order to understand the long-term impacts of suspension and expulsion.