A majority of disciplined Massachusetts public school students are suspended or expelled for relatively minor offenses, and black and Latino students receive harsher punishments than white students, a new report has found.
The report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights School Discipline, a Boston-based nonprofit, also found students with disabilities receive a disproportionate amount of discipline than their peers, and charter schools are more likely than traditional schools to suspend students.
According to the report, non-violent, non-criminal, non-drug incidents accounted for two thirds (66.5 percent) of all out-of-school suspensions. The report also found that 72 percent of in-school and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions combined were for minor misbehavior.
“It could be disrespect, it could be dress code violations, it could be tardiness, whatever it is we know it’s a harsh punishment that research has shown to predict school dropout, grade retention and involvement in the juvenile justice system,” Matt Cregor, a co-author of the report, told WBUR. “So, if we’re using suspension on minor misbehavior it’s sending the wrong message to our students, particularly our students of color and students with disabilities who see the most significant disproportion of these suspensions.”
Overall, Massachusetts public school students lost at least 208,605 days in the classroom in the 2012-2013 school year due to discipline — and two-thirds of those days were out-of-school suspensions, according to the report.
Using data from the 2012-2013 school year (the most recent data available) from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the report analyzed in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, permanent expulsions and removals to an alternate setting. The report did not analyze data on the use of school-based arrests or referrals to law enforcement, which it said are not collected by the state. The report focuses on white, Latino and black students, who make up just over 90 percent of the student population, as well as students with disabilities and low-income students.
A Law On School Discipline
It’s important to note that in August 2012 Massachusetts passed a law, referred to as Chapter 222, to prevent the unnecessary exclusion of students from school. That law went into effect this year and is not reflected in the study. The law gives public schools and charters specific procedures for student suspensions and expulsions, such as providing educational services to a student during their suspension or expulsion, and requiring that schools try alternative methods of discipline before issuing a long-term suspension.
A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Tuesday afternoon they could not comment on the new report since they had not yet seen it. She said the department looks at the data for all schools and has been working with different school districts to train them on the requirements of the new law.
Cregor, the report co-author, called the law a “significant and positive step forward.” The authors of the report also said their findings could provide a baseline for how well the new state law is doing.
Students Disciplined Differently Across Demographics
In general, Massachusetts’ out-of-school suspension rate (4.3 percent) was less than the national average (6.8 percent), but the same cannot be said when looking at suspension rates for blacks and Latinos. According to the report, one in 27 white students was disciplined in 2012-2013, while 1 in 10 Latino students and 1 in 8 black students were disciplined at least once. Black students received 43 percent of all out-of-school suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions, despite making up only 8.7 percent of students enrolled. Further, black students were 3.7 times as likely as white students to be suspended, which is slightly higher than the national average of 3.6. The suspension rate for Massachusetts Latino students, however, was twice the national average: Latino students were 3.1 times more likely than white students to be suspended, compared with the national average of 1.5.
Cregor said the racial disparities are not due to students of color misbehaving at disproportionate rates.
“Research suggests that white students are disproportionately likely to be punished for objective offenses, things like alcohol or tobacco possession whereas students of color are disproportionately likely to be punished for defiance or disrespect, things that are far more subjective and too often can be in the eye of the beholder,” Cregor said.
Similar disparities were also found for students with disabilities, who were suspended at three times the rate (8.5 percent) of their non-disabled peers (2.8 percent); nationally, students with disabilities were suspended twice as often as their non-disabled peers. These students were also disciplined at a rate (37 percent) double their enrollment (18 percent).
For students with disabilities, there is often a failure to address their emotional and behavioral needs, Cregor said. It’s unclear which disabilities are represented in this group, however. Cregor said there was no data from the state on the makeup of students with disabilities.
The report also found that low-income students (those receiving free or reduced-price lunch) were also disciplined at almost double the rate of their enrollment. They account for 38 percent of students enrolled but 73 percent of students disciplined. (There is no national data on out-of-school suspension rates in this category to compare.)
High Punishment Rates In Charter Schools
Discipline also varied strongly across school districts and charter schools.
Five percent of schools accounted for 42.7 percent of all the suspensions, expulsions and removals TWEET to alternative schools in the state. Holyoke had the highest suspension rate among public school districts, with 21.5 percent being suspended there at least once, and six of its 11 schools disciplining at least 20 percent of their students. Fall River, Lynn, Brockton, Springfield and Worcester all suspended more than 10 percent of their students.
The highest rates of discipline were seen in charter schools. While only 4 percent of the state’s public schools are charters, they made up nearly 14 percent of schools with discipline rates over 20 percent. Charter schools in Boston had especially high rates of discipline, removing 17.3 percent of students from school. For example, Roxbury Preparatory Charter schools suspended 59.8 percent of its students; 94 percent of these suspensions were for non-violent, non-criminal, non-drug behavior.
Marléna Rose, whose daughter attended Roxbury Preparatory Charter School from 6th-8th grade, said she felt students were punished too harshly for minor things like having untied shoelaces or speaking out of turn.
“I found the policy to be extremely punitive,” Rose said. “What the school does is they have a way of using words like ‘defiant’ or ‘argumentative’ and use it as tools to punish the kids, so if you ask a question that could be considered argumentative.”
Some charter schools have defended their discipline practices. Will Austin, the chief operating officer at Roxbury Preparatory Charter, told The Boston Globe that the school has been a physically and emotionally safe place for students for several years.
Disparities In Boston Schools
The report on school suspensions across the state comes after a report released last week showed racial disparities in Boston schools in regards to educational access and resources, starting as early as elementary school. That report, commissioned by Boston Public Schools, found that black and Latino students in Boston were more likely to be placed into a separate educational track with diminished opportunities than white and Asian students. The report found black male students with special needs were twice as likely than white male students with special needs to be placed in separate classrooms, while Latino male students with special needs were 1.6 times more likely than their white peers to be placed in separate classrooms.
Disparities in discipline were also noted in the report on Boston schools. Black and Latino male high school students, for instance, were found to be 3.2 and 2.3 times more likely, respectively, to be suspended than white male students.
Alternative Methods Of School Discipline
While the data suggest many Massachusetts schools are using suspensions as their primary discipline tool, the new report does highlight some best practices identified by the state as alternative disciplinary methods. This includes community service, loss of a privilege, conflict resolution, contacting parents and peer mediation. The report says these practices provide more meaningful and helpful lessons for students.
The report also suggests that schools bring students and teachers together to develop a common language and process for addressing issues that arise at school (known as restorative practices). Cregor said this has worked to reduce suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement and the racial discipline gap in Denver public schools. The report also highlights the Curley K-8 School in Boston as an example of a local school using this practice.
“Our first priority is making sure that educators have other tools in their tool belts to address conflicts that arise in the classroom and to feel like they’re able to manage their classrooms effectively,” Cregor said.
Interactive: See discipline data for your school district:
2012-13 Student Discipline Data Report
Here is look the top five suspension rates for public schools (in addition to Boston) and charter schools:
WBUR’s Peter Balonon-Rosen contributed to this report.