Racial disparity data should be a wake-up call

Black students are six times as likely to be suspended as white students. On average, black students are 2.2 grade levels behind their white peers academically. White students are 4.3 times as likely as black students to be enrolled in advanced classes.

The figures aren’t from a struggling urban school district or from a Southern district still shaking off the legacy of Jim Crow. They’re from Bloomington, Indiana, the liberal college town where I live.

They should be a wake-up call for officials with the local Monroe County Community School Corp. – and for the entire community. They should be a relentless focus for school board members and for the half-dozen brave souls currently running to be elected to the board.

The data come from a remarkable reporting collaboration by ProPublica and the New York Times. Titled “Miseducation” and published Tuesday, the project provides searchable data on academic opportunity and achievement, discipline and segregation for 17,000 school districts.

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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.

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