By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director

Nine in ten black male students with disabilities in Henrico County were suspended at least once during the 2009-2010 school year according to a report on racial disparities in school discipline published by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.  This shocking statistic is included in a report, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” that shows Henrico County as having the largest racial gap (28.4%)  in students’ suspension rates among the 100 largest school districts across the nation. While 39.4% of black students were suspended, just 11% of white students were.  And, while black students make up about 40% of the county’s student population, they comprised nearly 75% of the county’s suspensions.
For students with disabilities the apparent discrimination is even worse. The suspension risk for black students with disabilities is about 82%, compared to 36% for white students with disabilities.  Researchers drilled down further to find that 92% of black male students with disabilities were suspended at least once in the 2009-2010 school year.
Overall, Virginia ranked 21st in the nation with a gap of 11.6% between black students and white students’ suspension rates, so Henrico County isn’t the only school district in Virginia that needs to answer some questions about why black students are suspended at higher rates than white students. Of the 92 Virginia school districts, 21 districts had a gap of at least 10%, and four of those had gaps of at least 20%.
According to the background provided by the Civil Rights Project, “other research on student behavior, race and discipline has found no evidence that the over-representation of Blacks in out-of-school suspension is due to higher rates of misbehavior (Kelly, 2010; McCarthy & Hoge, 1987).”  Rather, the cause seems to be disparate discipline.
“[N]umerous empirical studies (e.g., Skiba, Michael, Nardo & Peterson, 2002; Skiba et al., 2009) suggest that black students are receiving harsher punishments when it comes to misbehavior that requires a more subjective evaluation.”
If we don’t take steps to eliminate discrimination from the discipline system, the system will continue to have a disparate impact on students’ futures.  Out-of-school suspensions increase a student’s risk for incarceration down the line, and is one of the leading indicators of whether a student will drop out of school or complete their education.  When minority students, particularly those with disabilities, are taken out of the classroom more frequently, they’re put at a higher risk for getting in trouble with the law and for dropping out of school.
Every child deserves a chance to succeed and putting some at a disadvantage, especially so early on in life, because of their race is not only unfair but, when viewed from the perspective of the future of our Commonwealth and our economy, short-sighted and adverse to our overall best interests.
Even if the current disciplinary system weren’t discriminatory, students shouldn’t be routinely funneled into the justice system. Rather, we should reform our school discipline system to ensure a brighter future for all students. The use of out-of-school suspension is all too prevalent in Virginia schools and is being used as punishment for minor offenses. Kicking children out of school isn’t the answer to improving schools. We need smarter and more effective discipline standards based on research.
In light of school discipline incidents in Fairfax County and other localities, school districts have begun to rethink their disciplinary policies.  At the state level, several bills (HB 366/HB 544/HB 365/HB 887) related to suspension and expulsions, including bills calling for study on the issue (HJ 66/HJ 89), were introduced in the 2012 General Assembly session, but carried over to the 2013 session.
Given this latest report showing that punishment is meted out more harshly for black students in Virginia and research illustrating the negative effects of school exclusion, legislators should address the issue this winter.  At the very least, the Virginia Department of Education should require schools to report disciplinary data that is disaggregated by race/ethnicity, disability status, and gender.
Reform of school discipline standards may not be easy, but other states and localities have made reforms to their school discipline standards.  Clearly, it is not an impossible task, but it is a critical and essential task to assure our children’s futures and the health of the Virginia economy as this generation moves into adulthood and assumes their role as Virginia taxpayers.
Other Resources (PDF):
“Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” by Daniel J. Losen and Jonathan Gillespie.  The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A.  August 2012.
“Educate Every Child: Promoting Positive Solutions to School Discipline in Virginia” by Angela A. Ciolfi, Crystal Shin and Jeree Harris. JustChildren at Legal Aid Justice Center. November 2011.