A new report shows racial disparities in suspension rates at Virginia schools, and the authors argue that removing students from class does not solve behavior problems. (Globalstock/iStock)

Black students in Virginia’s schools were three times as likely as white students to be suspended last year, according to a new report on school punishments.

The JustChildren Program and the Legal Aid Justice Center found that although short-term suspension rates in Virginia schools fell 20 percent between 2010 and 2014, they have remained relatively unchanged during the past two school years, according to the report, called “Suspended Progress.” Expulsions, while generally rare, rose 6 percent from 2013 to 2015.

The organizations are advocating for alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, which they think can derail a student’s path to a high school diploma and do not provide any benefits. They want schools instead to encourage good behavior and to implement programs that address the roots of misconduct.

“Students who are excluded from school are more likely to experience academic failure, dropping out, mental health problems, and justice system involvement,” the report’s authors wrote. “Worse yet, there is no evidence to suggest that suspension and expulsion deter misconduct or improve school safety.”

Many school systems have reexamined discipline after harsh drug and weapon policies meant to keep campuses safe resulted in what some think was an overreaction to typical childhood behavior, such as students using their fingers to make the shape of a gun or leaving prescribed antibiotics in their lockers. There also has been increased focus on disparities in disciplinary outcomes, as many studies have found that black and Hispanic students are suspended at far higher rates than their white counterparts.

The report found that 12.4 percent of Virginia’s black students received short-term suspensions, compared with 3.4 percent of white students in the 2014-2015 school year.

Angela Ciolfi, one of the authors of the report and legal director of the JustChildren Program, said many schools issue suspensions for minor infractions. Virginia schools issued more than 126,000 suspensions to approximately 70,000 students during the 2014-2015 school year. More than 7,800 out-of-school suspensions were issued for “disrespect/walking away,” and more than 2,100 suspensions were issued for cellphone use.

More than 22 percent of out-of-school suspensions were issued to elementary school children, including nearly 300 to pre-kindergartners.

“We have to ask ourselves what we hope to achieve by that,” Ciolfi said, referring to punishing the youngest students. “It certainly isn’t teaching them how school is important and how they need to conduct themselves in a classroom. And they’re missing out on instruction.”

In some school districts, as many as 1 in 5 students received short-term suspensions last school year. Some districts suspended black students at four times the rate of white students.

Large Northern Virginia districts all had short-term suspension rates below the state average of 5.4 percent.

Prince William County led Northern Virginia districts in long-term suspensions — those longer than 11 days — with 148 last school year. Karyn Riddle, the county’s supervisor of student management, said the district has worked to reduce all forms of disciplinary problems that remove students from class. But students exhibiting dangerous behavior can be a challenge, she said.

“The challenge overall for us is how do you maintain safety of schools when serious things are going on with drugs and weapons and other serious offenses?” Riddle said.

Her office has focused on ensuring that all students have access to an education regardless of why they are suspended from school, turning to alternatives such as online courses.

Loudoun County has seen a dramatic drop in the rate of short-term suspensions in the past seven years and now has one of the lowest rates in Virginia. Fewer than 1 in 100 Loudoun students received short-term suspensions last school year, the report said.

John Lody, director of diagnostic and prevention services for the Loudoun district, attributed the drop to a program that trained educators to teach good behavior just as they would any subject, such as math or science. Educators also learned to recognize when students behave well and to set clear expectations for student conduct. It is all part of program known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) that state and federal education officials have promoted.

“We’ve always been good at responding to bad behavior, but PBIS is about preventing it in the first place,” Lody said.