Student suspension data show inequities by race and type of disability

2809961438_56d48f9969_mZero-tolerance policies for serious disruptive behavior have been adopted by many schools in response to high-profile school shootings by students such as those at Columbine.

A recent study in the Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders reports that the number of student suspensions has increased substantially in the past 9 years and that there is an “alarming trend” of inequity among students who are suspended. The study is based on an analysis of statewide suspension data from Maryland.

From 1995 to 2003, the number of suspensions of students increased from 85,071 in 1995 to 134,998 in 2003, an increase of 58.7% (student enrollment increased by 9.6%), the researchers report. The percentage of students suspended increased from 6.6% to 8.9%.

Students who were suspended were disproportionately African American, American Indian and students with some disabilities, the study reports. “Students with emotional and behavioral disorders had the highest odds ratios for suspensions, especially for African American students,” the researchers say. Odds ratios were high for the LD category for each racial group.

Deepening of inequity

“This alarming trend is not consistent with the belief that zero-tolerance policies create equity in disciplinary practices,” the researchers write. “In fact, there was clear evidence that increases in suspension rates were accompanied by a deepening of the inequity in disciplinary treatment across racial groups.”

The odds ratios for suspension increased for African American students and American Indian students from 1995 to 2003 as well as for students with disabilities, although that varied by disability category and by race.

Odds ratios for suspension were 3 times higher for African American students with mental retardation than for white, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian students with mental retardation.  “Disciplinary removal of students with mental retardation is not an appropriate response considering the nature of the disability,” the authors write.

Students with ED

It is not surprising that students with ED exhibit numerous problem behaviors in school, the researchers write. “However, it appears that the behaviors are poorly managed by schools or that the behaviors’ association with the disability is not considered when determining disciplinary consequences.”

The researchers add that suspensions are likely to interrupt behavioral interventions for these students, which need to be implemented consistently over time. Removal does not promote prosocial behaviors, restricts students’ class time and generally conflicts with the underlying principles of special education, the authors say.

Special educators should be more involved with the development of school disciplinary policies, they advise. They should work with administrators to promote school safety while at the same time limiting the impact of inflexible zero-tolerance policies on students in special education, they maintain.

“Comprehensive and preventive approaches for maintaining school safety and discipline need to replace punitive and exclusionary procedures currently in place,” the researchers write.

Disproportionate suspensions of minority students and students with disabilities in Maryland may have been due in part to high suspension rates at poor urban schools with limited resources, the researchers write. High student-teacher ratios, insufficient curricular and course relevance and weak, inconsistent leadership are some of the school-related factors that may contribute to unequal suspensions.

“Suspension, Race, and Disability: Analysis of Statewide Practices and Reporting.” by Michael Krezmien, Peter Leone and Georgianna Achilles, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Volume 14, No. 4 Winter 2006 Pp. 217-226.

Published in ERN January 2007 Volume 20 Number 1

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