Suspension rates extremely high at some schools

Some Indiana schools gave out-of-school suspensions to over half of their students during the 2016-17 academic year. That’s according to data provided by the Indiana Department of Education.

The suspension rates should be cause for concern, said JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, which advocates for research-based and nonpunitive school discipline.

“When kids are not in school and are losing critical days of instruction, their risk of dropping out is greater,” she said. “But it’s also important to note that, when you have really high percentages of students suspended, it impacts the whole school.”

“We’re really missing the big picture if we don’t understand how school discipline can undercut what we’re trying to do, which is improve these schools for all students.”

The high rates of suspension come at a time of concern that excessive discipline fuels a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Researchers have found that students of color are more likely than white students to be punished for the same offenses, and that such disparities may contribute significantly to racial achievement gaps. As Hanger suggested, studies have found that harsh school discipline can have negative effects even on students who aren’t subject to disciplinary actions.

Some of the highest suspension rates were in Indianapolis, especially in “no excuses” charter schools that serve many poor and African-American students — like the Tindley schools, known for their extended school day, small classes and “college or die” slogan. Tindley Preparatory Academy, with students in grades 5-8, gave out-of-school suspensions to 82 percent of its students, according to state data. Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School suspended two-thirds of its students. KIPP Indy College Prep, part of a national chain of no-excuses charter schools, suspended 69 percent of its students.

Three schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools district, Arlington, George Washington and John Marshall, suspended over 60 percent of their students in 2016-17, according to the data.

But quite a few Indianapolis charter and public schools reported low rates of out-of-school suspensions. Christel House Academy schools, for example, suspended fewer than 5 percent of their students. The data are self-reported, and there is no way to verify their accuracy.

According to my calculations, Indianapolis Public Schools suspended 16 percent of all students in 2016-17 while charter schools in the IPS area suspended 22 percent. (The figures don’t include virtual or hybrid charter schools, which deliver instruction online, or charter schools that serve adult learners or special populations of students).

Statewide, about 5 percent of students in public and charter schools received out-of-school suspensions.

Many Indianapolis charter schools, including the Tindley and KIPP schools, are authorized by the Indianapolis mayor’s office. Patrick McAlister, director of the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, cautioned against reading too much into the self-reported rates. But he said his office tracks the data and encourages schools to work to reduce suspensions and expulsions.

He pointed to Indianapolis Lighthouse Charter School South, which reduced its suspension rate from 19 percent to 3 percent in two years. Fourteen mayor-sponsored charter schools had suspension rates of less than 15 percent, he said. Three-fourths of the schools expelled no students in 2016-17.

The mayor’s office “is aware of individual schools with higher than average (rates) and is working to understand the causes of this data and how to partner with schools to ensure safe and equitable education environments are provided to all students while respecting school autonomy,” McAlister said.

It’s true that respecting school autonomy is important, and not just for charter schools. We’ve known since the effective-schools research of the 1970s that a safe and orderly environment is essential to school success. But the numbers suggest some schools may have turned to suspension as a first option.

“All the schools use suspension,” said Hanger of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative. “We’re not saying you don’t. We’re saying you should be very judicious in how you use it and use it for right things, not just to control behavior.”

Here is a link to school discipline data for 2013-17, including in-school and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and arrests. You can also find data for charter schools and school corporations in annual performance reports on the Indiana Department of Education Compass website. Click on the “accountability” tab to download the reports.

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