According to the latest data, racial disparities in school discipline persist across the country. In April, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on national discipline trends and the Office on Civil Rights released its latest biennial data collection on school climate and safety. Both confirm that African Americans, boys, and students with disabilities are significantly overrepresented when it comes to being disciplined via suspension, expulsion, and other means.
Suspension rates alone are an inadequate indicator of school climate and mask the full extent of the problem. Some schools artificially lower their numbers by not reporting in-school suspensions. Also, schools can take other disciplinary actions on-site, formal and informal (e.g., office referrals) that can negatively affect students. So this data, which is self-reported by schools and districts, is only a part of the picture.
Why talk about school discipline?
- Students of color are affected in every setting. Rich or poor, charter or district – it doesn’t matter. One of the key findings of the GAO report was that disparities in discipline rates between races persisted across income levels, type of public school attended, and type of disciplinary action.
- Reducing suspensions matters. A lot. We need to reduce unnecessary suspensions as a step towards stopping school-to-prison pipelines. Some students, particularly those with disabilities or high-need backgrounds, who experience out-of-school suspensions and expulsions may benefit more from additional educational and counseling services (i.e. restorative justice circles) rather than isolation and exclusion.
- It’s a civil rights issue. When students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionately suspended and expelled (sometimes for the same infractions as white or affluent students), it’s a sign that implicit biases may be affecting discipline decisions.
How is Oakland doing?
Many of our schools have been purposefully changing their discipline policies and implementing restorative justice and other similar practices. In the spirit of celebrating those locally who made strides in reducing suspension rates (shout-out to Oakland for beating the national rate!), let’s look at some highlights.
- Some progress in most recent data despite citywide status quo: The average citywide suspension rate remained the same from 2015-16 to 2016-17 at 4.2%. Below are some schools across Oakland who reduced their suspension rates in a year with no citywide trend change.
- Trend of improvement across the board for past six years: Compared to district rates in 2011-12 (the last year that’s conveniently available on Dataquest), there has been a decrease in suspension rates across all racial groups (see graph). I’m personally excited to see all those lines with downward trends (aka decreasing suspension rates, which is a good thing); for me, it means that school leaders have been focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline in Oakland over the past few years. OUSD deserves applause for its vanguard work and widespread adoption of restorative justice, which involves shifting mindsets as well as changing disciplinary practices.
- Closing the gap for African American students: The line above with the sharpest decrease is for African American students – which is great news given how high the rate was back in 2011-12 (13.8%). Schools across Oakland have reduced the suspension rate of African American students by over 5.2 percentage points, surpassing the average 3.4 percentage point decrease – necessary to eventually eliminate disproportionality.
We must continue this progress!
- Oakland is still higher than the state average: From 2011-12 to 2016-17 (coincidentally the years the Obama administration issued guidance for disproportionate rates of discipline), Oakland improved at quicker rate than the state at reducing suspension rates (Oakland: 7.6% to 4.2%; State: 5.7% to 3.6%). However, our citywide suspension rate still remains higher than statewide (4.2% vs 3.6%). To put into context, 4.2% of students translate to approximately 2,300 Oakland students who received at least one suspension in 2016-17.
- And we see disparities like those in state and national data: During 2016-17, African American students (8.6%), students with disabilities (9.2%), homeless students (8.8%), and foster students (12.2%) were more than twice as likely to be suspended than the average student (4.2%). These trends reflect statewide disparities in suspension rates. Groups nationally are digging deeper into causes behind the disparities to identify opportunity areas for improvement.
- So we must pick up the pace to continue historical progress: From 2015-16 to 2016-17, most subgroups in Oakland did not see a significant decrease (>2%) in average suspension rates, with notable exceptions for foster and homeless students. Some subgroups saw increases in suspension rates from 15-16 to 16-17, like students with disabilities (9.2% in 16-17, +0.6% increase).
- Especially since it is now part of the State Dashboard: Last spring, the State decided to incorporate suspension rates into its accountability system, the new CA School Dashboard. This multi-measure approach adds an indicator of school climate in addition to measuring academic performance via test scores. Theoretically, this will make it easier for parents to consider this aspect of their students’ experience, creating further pressure for districts and schools to improve.
Suspension rate = Unduplicated Count of Students Suspended divided by the Cumulative Enrollment at a single site for an academic year