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.”

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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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Discipline bill should include charter schools

Legislation aimed at promoting positive school discipline and reducing the number of students who are suspended or expelled has been approved by the Indiana House and sent to the Senate. As amended in the House, the bill doesn’t mandate better policies, but it’s a step in the right direction.

It would be a bigger step, however, if lawmakers extended their reach to charter schools, including “no-excuses” charter schools that use strict discipline to enforce compliant student behavior.

House Bill 1421, in its current form, would:

  • Have the Indiana Department of Education develop a model school discipline policy and provide help to school corporations that want to implement better discipline policies and procedures.
  • Have the department survey school corporations about their use of positive discipline and report the findings to the legislature by Sept. 1, 2018.
  • Assign a legislative study committee the task of examining positive school discipline and restorative justice policies with an eye to whether they should be required in the future.

None of that is controversial, and the bill passed the House by a vote of 92-0.

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Bill aims to reduce suspensions

Update: The House Education Committee approved HB 1421 by a vote of 8-5. That sends it to the full House for possible amendments and further consideration. If it passes the House, it will go to the Senate for more of the same. Supporters said the bill is a “work in progress” that needs to be revised to ensure that it’s effective. But they said punitive discipline is a serious issue that lawmakers should address.

Indiana child advocates are promoting legislation that would discourage schools from suspending and expelling students and encourage “positive discipline strategies” that keep students in school.

The legislation, House Bill 1421, is scheduled to be heard this morning by the House Education Committee. It would revise state law on school discipline to prioritize positive, research-based approaches, including restorative justice and culturally responsive practices.

“Our interest is in keeping kids in school and preventing them from going into the criminal-justice system,” said JauNae Hanger, president of the Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana.

The legislation calls on school corporations to create policies that reduce suspensions and expulsions and address disparities in how students are disciplined. It says students should be removed from school only for serious offenses, not for being tardy or skipping school. Students should be arrested or referred to law enforcement only to protect public safety, the bill says.

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Legislation seeks to roll back ‘zero tolerance’

Indiana legislators could be on their way to doing something important for the state’s students. Bills have been filed in the House and Senate that would pull back from the harsh school discipline policies that have been in place since the “zero tolerance” philosophy swept the nation in the 1990s.

The measures, Senate Bill 443 and House Bill 1640, were introduced by Republicans Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee. And they have bipartisan support; Democrat Greg Porter is second author of the House bill.

“These are very good bills, with three or four noteworthy provisions,” said Russell Skiba, education professor and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. “It’s certainly encouraging that the leadership in both the House and Senate is behind this.”

The proposals result from recommendations developed last fall by the legislature’s interim study committee on education. The Children’s Law and Policy Initiative, the Indianapolis NAACP and other groups have been pushing for these sorts of changes.

Driving the bills is concern about overuse of suspension and expulsion, often for minor offenses. Research has found large disparities in how discipline is applied, with minority students punished more harshly than white students for the same offenses. Indiana has some of the worst disparities in the nation, according to federal data. Continue reading