Middle Schools Are Disciplining Kids by Throwing Them Away

School suspension rates are climbing, particularly among black girls.

By Michelle Chen Sep 14, 2010

Talk all you want about improving our nation’s schools, but the fact is, students can’t close the "achievement gap" when they’re not allowed into the classroom. Yet school suspension rates are climbing and potentially stifling educational opportunity for disadvantaged middle-schoolers, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Activists have long warned of the school-to-prison pipeline–sort of the opposite of the honors track, steering poor kids of color into troubled adolescence and eventually the criminal justice system. The SPLC explains, "Disciplinary tactics that respond to typical adolescent behavior by removing students from school do not better prepare students for adulthood. Instead, they increase their risk of educational failure and dropout." Predictably, the survey of school districts around the country, focusing on 2002 to 2006, found especially high suspension rates among Black middle-school students. But the statistics broke down along intriguing patterns by race and gender. Nationwide in 2006, the middle-school suspension rate for Black students generally exceeded that of other groups. Within that figure, there are acute racial disparities among girls. Black girls had a suspension rate of 18 percent, compared with 4 percent of white girls and 2 percent of Asian girls. The rates for Black, white and Asian males, respectively, were 28 percent, 10 percent and 6 percent. Native and Latino students fell in the middle of that range. Drilling down to 18 large school districts (including Los Angeles, Miami-Dade, Houston, Milwaukee and others), the survey reveals complex demographic divisions in who gets kicked out of school (typically for infractions ranging from skipping class to fighting):

Of the 175 schools suspending more than 33% of the Black males enrolled, 84 were suspending Black males at a rate of at least 50%. The 50% mark was also met or exceeded by 31 schools for Black Females, 13 schools for Hispanic males; 2 schools for Hispanic females; 22 schools for White males and 18 schools for White Females.

Suspensions of Black girls have jumped (undercutting popular myths about pro-girl bias in schools):

The average increase in out-of-school suspension rate per district was 2.3 percentage points for all students…. the per-district average increase was greatest for Black females (5.3 percentage points), followed by Black males (1.7 percentage points).

In addition to asking what causes this "discipline gap"–discrimination by school staff? Unequal distribution of funding?–communities should be asking if these kids have to be kicked out of school in the first place. There are many alternatives to "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies that encourage arbitrary suspension. The Dignity in Schools Campaign, led by a coalition of community and civil liberties groups, has pushed for the incorporation progressive disciplinary methods, known as Positive Behavior Supports, into school reform efforts. The campaign has developed a model school code that prioritizes children’s human rights instead of punishment. Race and gender gaps in school suspensions aren’t a complete measure of educational quality. But they illustrate the extreme consequences of educational inequality: schools that not only fail to open doors for underserved youth, but seem determined to push them out.