The Civil Rights Project (CRP) is proud to publish this important report by Daniel Losen and Jon Gillespie. It is the first national study by our Center for Civil Rights Remedies, which is headed by Dan Losen. Since its founding 16 years ago, CRP’s central focus has been on racial and ethnic inequalities in educational opportunities, and on policies that could remedy the resulting inequalities in school outcomes. We have published studies and books on segregation in schools, inequality in choice programs, issues of equity in testing, discrimination in special education placement, the dropout crisis, and the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as many studies on college access. Losen has done pioneering work on issues of unequal treatment within schools, including the widely cited book, Racial Inequity in Special Education (Losen & Orfield, 2002), and on dropouts.
One thing that has become very clear through our work at the Civil Rights Project is that it is critically important to keep students, especially those facing inequality in other parts of their lives, enrolled in school. This relates directly to the common and often highly inappropriate policy of punishing students who are already at risk of dropping out by suspending them from school. Because suspension increases a young person’s probability of both dropping out and becoming involved with the criminal justice system, it is difficult to justify, except in extreme situations where safety or the educational process of the school is directly and seriously threatened. For the vast majority of cases, however, the challenge is to find a way to address the situation with better practices, more alternatives, and more effective training of school personnel.
The findings in this study are deeply disturbing. Students who are barely maintaining a connection with their school often are pushed out, as if suspension were a treatment. The statistics on the use of suspension for African American and special education students are cause for great concern. We already know that African American males are disproportionately placed into categories of special education that are associated with extremely poor outcomes. We now see that these same students face incredibly high rates of suspension. Every dropout costs society hundreds of thousands of dollars over the student’s lifetime in lost income, and removing a large number of students from school undermines a community’s future. In a society that is incarcerating a large number of African American young men, with terrible consequences for their families and communities, these results are simply unacceptable. We can and must do better for young people whose future is at stake.
Thinking about this data should create a sense of alarm about this group of students and others experiencing high rates of suspension. Putting students who face serious challenges on a path that leads them to detach from school or cut the already weak ties that prevent them from dropping out is a misguided practice. It is not enough, of course, to simply blame the schools. These patterns often reflect a lack of knowledge about how to work effectively with these groups of students and a lack of systems for solving real problems within schools. It is clear that exclusion is not a cure, but nor is overlooking unacceptable behavior.
There is a better course. The encouraging finding in this report is the very good news that hundreds of districts do not have highly differentiated suspension rates and/or use suspension only rarely. This indicates that discipline problems are being successfully addressed by some educators in some districts. We need to challenge those districts that have high rates of suspension and inequitable treatment of their students to find similar solutions, and provide them with the resources and training they need to implement them. Effectively addressing problems in the schools when children are still young, including finding solutions with professional help and training, can prevent students from taking a path toward lifelong failure.
We hope that the nation’s educators will respond to the very serious issues raised by this report and that community organizations will insist that better answers be found, as critically important rights are at stake. Therefore, educators, the press, community leaders, and civil rights organizations need to press for better and more positive solutions.