States in the Southeast suspend K-12 students at the highest rates in the country, according to new data released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education as part of a daylong White House conference on ways to approach school discipline.

“Creating and sustaining safe, supportive schools is absolutely essential to ensuring students can engage in the rich learning experiences they need for success in college, work and life — that’s why rethinking school discipline is critical to boosting student achievement and improving school outcomes,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and they are more likely to repeat a grade and enter the juvenile justice system, data show. More than 3 million of the nation’s 50 million K-12 students are suspended or expelled annually, a rate administration officials call “staggering.”


Students with disabilities are frequently given out-of-school suspensions, and that is true across the country, as described in a second map the department released:


The conference is part of a joint effort by the U.S. Justice and Education departments to examine school discipline, particularly racial disparities that result in students of color facing suspensions and expulsions at rates far higher than their white counterparts.

Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by a zero-tolerance culture. As suspensions ticked up, racial disparities widened between black students and white students — and, to a lesser extent, hispanic students and white students.

Experts say the reasons behind racial disparities are complex. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in suspensions. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles

The administration highlighted several school districts and states that it says have made positive changes in their approach to school discipline. Baltimore City Schools have taken a more rehabilitative approach to students who misbehave while last year Maryland enacted sweeping statewide changes in discipline policies, aiming for a more constructive approach.

Los Angeles Unified was the first school district to ban suspensions for “willful defiance,” which includes infractions such as refusing to turn off a cell phone and led to expulsions among a disproportionate share of African American students, according to the administration. And public schools in Syracuse, N.Y., implemented a new discipline code, trained staff in alternative discipline and hired an independent monitor to oversee progress.