Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks about the importance of universal access to preschool and the need to reduce "unnecessary and unfair school discipline practices” in March 2014, at J. Ormond Wilson Elementary School in Washington. (Cliff Owen/AP/File)

Suspension rates dropped for many of the nation’s school districts — including some in the Washington region — but U.S. students still lost about 18 million days of instruction to out-of-school punishments in the 2011-2012 school year, according to research released Monday.

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles compared detailed data for every U.S. school district, presenting a mixed picture of discipline at a time of increased focus on the issue nationally.

They identified school systems in Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that they said showed “alarming” suspension rates of 20 percent or higher for elementary school children. But they also pointed to 28 school systems in 17 states that had marked declines in suspension rates from 2009-2010 to 2011-2012, the most recent national data available. They found more than half of the country’s school districts had relatively low rates of out-of-school punishment.

“There are some large districts that have made some dramatic reductions in their suspensions and reduced the racial gap as well,” said researcher Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, which is part of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The group’s report is titled, “Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?”

[Read the Center for Civil Rights Remedies report.]

Even with some notable improvements, national suspension rates have not changed in a meaningful way and racial gaps persist, Losen said. Across all grades, 16 percent of black students were suspended in
2011-2012, compared with 7 percent of Hispanic students and 5 percent of white students.

“Many large districts could and did make progress in that two-year period, but others got worse,” Losen said.

The report comes at a time of heightened concern about out-of-school suspensions, which researchers have linked to greater risks of academic failure, dropping out of high school and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

The federal government issued discipline guidelines last year amid an effort to keep more students in class, reduce racial disparities and avoid unnecessary suspensions. With a similar focus, Maryland also issued new regulations for its 24 school systems last year. Many experts have urged schools to use alternatives to suspension when possible.

“We conclude that our nation cannot close the achievement gap if we ignore the discipline gap,” the UCLA report said.

The school districts highlighted for showing major improvement included Henrico County in Virginia, where the secondary-student suspension rate dropped from 31 percent in 2009-2010 to 13.8 percent in 2011-2012. The racial-ethnic gap in such punishments narrowed, too.

“It’s important to note that pretty large reductions are possible in just the span of two years,” Losen said.

Henrico County schools spokesman Andy Jenks said the issue has been a priority for the district, with a series of trainings, programs and initiatives implemented during the past several years.

“It’s not about letting bad behavior go unpunished,” he said. “But instead it’s about putting in more support so the behavior doesn’t exist in the first place.” He said the district’s focus is on eliminating discipline gaps that affect African American males, students with disabilities and those living in poverty.

Henrico School Board Chairman John W. Montgomery Jr. said the district has worked to improve behavior and reduce suspensions. He credited educators. “At the end of the day, it’s the teachers and administrators saying, ‘We’re going to find a way to work with all of our kids,’ ” he said.

Florida had the highest suspension rates, with 5.1 percent for elementary students and 19 percent for those in secondary schools in 2011-2012. In that year, Maryland schools suspended 1.7 percent of elementary students and 9 percent of secondary students, the data showed. Virginia’s suspension rates were 2.6 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

In the Washington region, school systems with relatively low rates of suspended students included Fairfax, Montgomery, Arlington and Loudoun counties. Alexandria stood out locally for its decline, with rates dropping from 16.2 percent to 6.1 percent for secondary students during the two-year period. Its black-white gap for secondary students narrowed by more than 19 percentage points during that time, the new figures showed.

In Fairfax County, the suspension rate dropped to 1.4 percent for secondary students, down from 4.9 percent.

D.C. Public Schools ranked on the higher end of the spectrum for secondary students suspended in 2011-2012, the research found, with a rate of 20.1 percent.

The researchers found racial disparities were pervasive. But many school districts showed relatively low suspension rates for all racial and ethnic groups.

The researchers urged education leaders to examine the data for lessons about best practices, to put more resources into training teachers and school leaders and to use school climate as an accountability measure.

Researchers found that school districts in and around St. Louis had some of the highest suspension rates in the country. The area became a national focal point in August when a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

Missouri had the largest black-white gap in suspension rates for elementary school students and had the fourth-largest black-white gap for students suspended in middle and high school, according to the report.

The report cited suspension rates as high as 50 to 60 percent for secondary students in individual school districts in Illinois, Mississippi, Michigan and Arizona. “It’s really inexcusable,” Losen said. “These are school districts that are shouting out for help or intervention of some sort.”