School discipline data show discrepancies by race

Black students are suspended from Indiana public and charter schools at about four times the rate at which white students are suspended, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education.

Multiracial students, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and special-needs students are also more likely than their peers to be suspended, the data show.

This is alarming but not surprising. Disparities in discipline have been studied by academics and reported by the news media. Some research has found students of color are more likely than white students to be punished for the same behavior. A General Accountability Office report found that black students made up 15 percent of students in public schools but accounted for 39 percent of suspensions.

Experts point to a variety of causes, including zero-tolerance policies, implicit bias by teachers and administrators and a lack of awareness of alternative approaches to discipline.

Out-of-school suspension is tied to lower achievement, higher dropout rates and other adverse outcomes. If students aren’t in school, they aren’t learning and they’re more likely to grow discouraged and give up. Advocates say suspensions contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

And regardless of the correlation between discipline and academic achievement, punishing students more harshly because of their race or ethnicity is quite simply wrong, as Melinda D. Anderson writes.

Indiana schools suspended approximately 15 percent of African-American students in 2016-17 compared with 3.6 percent of white students. Low-income students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches were suspended at about three times the rate of students who didn’t qualify. Suspension rates for Hispanic students were slightly higher than for white students.

Overall, about one in 20 Indiana students received at least one out-of-school suspension in 2016-17.

Some of the most striking discrepancies are between schools. Some schools suspend a lot of students. Others don’t, including some that serve many poor students and students of color.

This suggests that schools can choose to take a different approach. Warren Township schools, for example, reduced out-of-school suspensions by 15 percent after changing their discipline practices and working with the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, Chalkbeat Indiana reported.

“It’s not something that can happen over one year,” said JauNae Hanger, the initiative’s president. “The idea is to pull together a team that becomes a catalyst, that continues to seek out training and to turn their schools around.” School leadership is key, said Hanger and Gwendolyn Kelly, the initiative’s vice chair.

Here’s a graph that shows out-of-school suspension rates for Indiana students by race and ethnicity. (Some of the percentages may be slightly off, because data are redacted out of privacy concerns for schools with very few Asian, black, Hispanic or multiracial students. That shouldn’t skew the overall percentages very much).

Here’s a graph showing out-of-school suspensions rates for male and female students and for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, who are in special education or who are English learners.

Suspension rates tended to be higher at urban schools serving many students of color and lower at mostly white rural and suburban schools, but there were many exceptions.

On average, charter schools suspended more students than district schools in all racial and ethnic categories. Indianapolis charter schools suspended 25 percent of black students in 2016-17 (compared to 19 percent for Indianapolis Public Schools). Several “no-excuses” charter schools with almost entirely black enrollment suspended over half of their students. But other charter schools, including some that mostly serve students of color, reported low suspension rates.

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