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Measuring the Impact of School Pushout

It is well known that young people who are removed from school through suspension or expulsion are more likely than other students to enter the juvenile justice system, both immediately and eventually. Students who are disciplined, especially repeatedly, are more likely to be held back a grade or drop out of school than other students.

Several recent studies have measured the impact of school exclusion by counting days of classroom instruction lost due to out-of-school suspension. Simply stated, suspensions harm students by depriving them of their opportunity to learn.

These harms are not distributed equally. Nationally, Black students and students with disabilities are disciplined at much greater rates than other students. And Black students with disabilities are most at risk of losing this right to an education.

Removing students with disabilities from schools also deprives them of crucial services they are entitled to by federal law, such as counseling, occupational and physical therapy, and small group or one-on-one tutoring. Federal law requires schools to provide special education and services to students with certain disabilities.

Here’s what we’ve come to learn.

Disabling Punishment

An April 2018 report, Disabling Punishment: The Need for Remedies to the Disparate Loss of Instruction Experienced By Black Students with Disabilities, presents a nationwide estimate of lost days of instruction due to suspension, by race and disability status. It measures this impact by counting days of lost instruction per 100 students enrolled.

Here are some of its key findings:

  • Black students with disabilities lose the most days of instruction due to suspension. Nationally they are substantially more likely to lose instruction than white students with disabilities, and the gap is growing.

  • Nationally, Black students with disabilities lose 77 more days of instruction per 100 enrolled than white students with disabilities.

  • Seventeen states have racial gaps significantly higher than the national average.

  • The disparities are especially alarming in certain states. In Nevada, Black students with disabilities lost 209 days of instruction per 100 enrolled, 153 more than the number of days lost by white students with disabilities during the 2015-16 school year.

Disabling Punishment builds on earlier research on days of lost instruction at the state level, about Massachusetts and California. In California, Black high school students lost 61 days per 100 students enrolled versus 14 days for white students. The Massachusetts study found that Black students missed instructional time at more than twice the statewide average for all students - 34 days of lost class days vs. 16 days for every 100 students.

What’s Driving the Racial Gap?

State-level studies reveal that out-of-school suspensions for minor, vaguely defined, misbehaviors are a driving force behind large racial disparities in lost days of instruction. In the fifty California districts with the largest Black/white disparities, Black students lost 92 days of class time per 100 students for minor misbehavior compared to 26 days for white students. Similarly in Massachusetts, Black students lost class time due to suspension for minor misbehaviors at three and a half times the rate of white students in Massachusetts. In California’s districts with the largest Latino/white gaps in lost instruction, suspensions for “disruption/defiance” accounted for 71% of that difference.

Chicago Public Schools has recognized that suspensions under catch-all codes (“any behavior not otherwise listed”) has contributed to racial disparities in student removals from schools. It has proposed changing the code of student conduct for the 2018-19 school year to require a higher level of approval by district administrators for suspensions that fall in these categories.

The Search for Solutions

Disabling Punishment offers several useful recommendations for reducing the harms for students due to lost instruction. First, school behavior codes should be revised to focus on prevention and less on punishment, relying instead on restorative practices and other systemic approaches to reinforce good behavior.

The report further recommends that efforts to stem the issuance of out-of-school suspensions for broad categories of behavior, such as ‘disruption’ and ‘defiance,’ be stepped up. Recent efforts to remove such broad and vaguely defined categories of discipline from school policies have already led to improvements in safety and reductions in suspensions, with similar pushes at the state level.

Finally, the report recommends that data, disaggregated by race, gender and disability status, be collected and reported in a way that makes it possible to identify gaps in race, disability, and gender.

There is an important debate about the role of the federal government in addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the identification and punishment of students of color with disabilities. On December 10, 2017, the US Commission on Civil Rights held a public hearing on “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Intersections of Students of Color with Disabilities.”

More recently, on July 3, 2018, the US Department of Education announced the postponement by two years of the implementation of the “Equity in IDEA Rule,” which provides important guidance to states in how to track trends in the identification and punishment of students with disabilities by race. Civil rights activists and special education officials are alarmed that a delay will set back work to address practices that endanger the basic right to an education for students of color and students with disabilities.

Justina McMinn and Lance Tran interned at the ACLU of Pennsylvania in 2018. Both are college seniors, Justina at The University of Pennsylvania and Lance at Duke University.

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