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"Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis"

January/February 2011 issue of Poverty & Race

This research was jointly supported by a grant from PRRAC and the Annie Casey Foundation, and received additional support of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA; the Indiana Univ. Center for Evaluation and Education Policy; Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice: and the Southern Poverty Law Center, The full report is available at www.civilrights Researchers Dan Losen (losendan@ and Russell J. Skiba (skiba@indiana. edu) can answer can answer any questions readers have. They would also like to thank Tami Wilson and Anthony Crowe for their tireless research assistance; Dr. Robin Hughes, Dept. of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana Univ.-Indianapolis; and Rebecca Fitch, U.S. Dept. of Education Office for Civil Rights, for providing technical assistance.

Research suggests that data on suspension at the middle-school level are rarely analyzed, despite the likelihood that suspension in middle school has significant long-term negative repercussions on achievement and graduation. Having analyzed some middle-school data for individual school districts, we knew that some urban middle schools had unusually high suspension rates and deep racial disparities. We did not know the full scope of the problem, so we set out to review the middle-school data in a more comprehensive manner. We knew the data were not easy to access or analyze for researchers, and were not aware of any prior national studies on middle-school suspension. Once we overcame the technical obstacles with gaining access to middle-school data, we set out to shed light on the issues of efficacy and fairness in the use of out-of-school suspension for middle-school students, with a close look at the disparities by race and gender.

To place the issue of middle-school suspensions in context, our report described the dramatic rise in suspension rates since the early 70’s, using the K-12 data. These show a substantial increase in the use of suspension for students of all races, but a much greater increase in the racial discipline gap. Specifically, K-12 suspension rates have more than doubled since the early 70’s for all non-Whites, while the Black/White gap more than tripled, rising from a difference of 3 percentage points in the 70’s to over 10 percentage points in the 2000’s.

Data Sources and Methodology

Using school-level data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, our report first estimated the risk of suspension in approximately 9,220 middle schools from every state in the nation. Next, we examined middle schools in 18 of the nation’s largest school districts to provide a clear picture of middle-school disciplinary practices in large urban districts and to document the change in suspension rates over the most recent four-year period.

The data source for the school- and district-level suspensions was a biennial survey of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), commonly referred to as the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). OCR’s survey explicitly required that schools only report the number of students suspended at least once during the year, which meant that the findings do not fully capture the frequency of the use of suspension by a given school or district. To generate rates that could be easily compared, our report used the most straightforward formula for each racial/gender group. Specifically, we divided the number of suspended students from the defined group by that group’s total enrollment to generate the percent of students from each subgroup that were suspended.


National Middle-School Suspension Rates by Race With Gender

Our analysis revealed profound racial/gender disparities (see table). For example, for middle school, 28.3% of Black males were suspended, compared to just 10% for White males. And 18% of Black females were suspended, compared with 3.9% of White females.

Middle-School Suspension Rates at the District and School Levels

Our report further analyzed the data for 18 of the nation’s largest districts. In 15 of the 18 districts, the research revealed that at least 30% of all enrolled Black males were suspended one or more times. In Palm Beach County and Milwaukee, the district-wide middle-school suspension rate for Black males exceeded 50%. The suspension rate for Black females exceeded 50% in Milwaukee and was over 33% in Palm Beach County, Indianapolis and Des Moines.

Our report’s school-level analysis also illustrated that urban middle schools with extraordinarily high suspension rates were not uncommon. Across the 18 districts examined, 167 middle schools suspended more than 33% of the Black males enrolled, and 84 schools exceeded 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. Further, we were able to analyze the trend data, which demonstrated that in most of the urban districts, the rates had risen, and most dramatically for Black females (an average increase of over 5 percentage points).


To help readers understand the importance of the observed disparities, our report reviewed research on the efficacy of suspension as a means of improving learning for both suspended students and their classmates, and highlighted the following:
  • The large majority of offenses for which students are suspended appear to be non-violent, less disruptive offenses.

  • There are no data showing that out-of-school suspension or expulsion reduces rates of disruption, deters future misbehavior or improves school climate.

  • Disciplinary removal appears to have negative effects on student outcomes and the learning climate, and is a moderate to strong indicator of dropping out of school.

  • Some studies conclude that suspension may act more as a reinforcer than a deterrent for inappropriate behavior.

  • Schools with higher rates of school suspension have lower ratings in academic quality and quality of school governance.

  • Some studies indicated that schools with higher rates of school suspension and expulsion have poorer outcomes on standardized achievement tests, regardless of the economic level or demographics of their students.

  • Research on student behavior, race and discipline has found no evidence that African-American over-representation in school suspension is due to higher rates of misbehavior.

  • A review of racial and gender disparities in school punishments in an urban setting found that, while White students were referred to the school office significantly more frequently for offenses that appear more capable of objective documentation (e.g., smoking, vandalism), African-American students were referred more often for disrespect, excessive noise, threat and loitering—behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent.

Report Conclusions and Recommendations

Our report raised important questions about why middle schools so frequently suspend students for minor, non-violent offenses, and suggested that large numbers of children of color in particular are losing a great amount of instructional time due to such frequent removal. One of the goals of public schooling is to prepare children to participate in our democracy and become productive, law-abiding citizens. Yet disciplinary tactics that respond to typical adolescent behavior by removing students from school increase their risk of educational failure and dropout, and undermine these broader goals. The disturbing race and gender data are an indicator of ongoing injustice, but also suggest that our urban middle schools, across the country, need a great deal more effort and support to address the issue. Toward that end, we issued several recommendations pertaining to federal policy, including:

1. Increase the collection, annual reporting and systemic use of data, especially data disaggregated by race and gender, on school discipline.

2. Identify schools and districts with high suspension rates, and provide technical assistance on effective alternative strategies.

3. Use the investigative authority of OCR to identify and address unlawful discrimination in the use of exclusionary school discipline, so that schools will develop disciplinary policies and methods that work well for all students to replace unjustifiable disciplinary policies and practices.

Response to the Report

With assistance from the Southern Poverty Law Center, The Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, our report was published and widely disseminated last September 14th. The same day the report was released, the New York Times covered the core findings, along with additional responses from spokespersons for two of the urban districts included in the study, both of whom agreed that the rates of suspension were too high and represented a serious problem in need of a remedy. Additional TV, radio and news reports followed in several of the urban areas included in the study. Moreover, on September 19th, the Times’ Sunday editorial cited our report’s findings and echoed its core recommendations.
A few weeks later, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited the report findings in statements made to a conference on “The School to Prison Pipeline,” convened jointly by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.

Most important, both Departments announced a commitment to investigate racial disparities in school discipline and the application of the “disparate impact” standard to their current and forthcoming investigations. A disparate impact review examines whether students from protected subgroups (by race/ethnicity, gender, language minority status or disability status) are excluded from school on disciplinary grounds at high rates due to school or district policy or practice. If the policy or practice in question is not educationally justifiable, or if the district has failed to pursue less discriminatory means to achieve the same educational goals, the disparities may be regarded as evidence of a violation of the prohibition against discrimination pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In such cases, the school or district in question must replace the unlawful policy or practice with one that is effective for all children.

OCR further stated that the agency would be issuing new guidance to school districts on how it will review disciplinary policy using the disparate impact standard and that it will provide technical assistance to any district seeking to address its discipline disparities voluntarily.

Next Steps

One recommendation not part of our report is that advocacy groups gather similar data from their local school districts and consider filing administrative complaints with OCR, using the disparate impact standard. To facilitate such efforts, The UCLA Civil Rights Project and the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder are updating an “action kit” on discriminatory school discipline policies for civil rights advocates that should be available this coming winter or spring. These will be available on their websites: www.civilrightsproject. and

In addition to filing administrative complaints, a range of organizations, including the Dignity in Schools Campaign, the American Psychological Association and the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders, are

urging Congress, as it reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to improve the collection and reporting of data; to hold schools and districts accountable for large disparities in school discipline; and to provide greater resources for improving school discipline, including increased support for positive behavioral interventions and social-emotional learning, as well as support for community involvement in turning around schools that demonstrate serious problems in the rates of discipline and other outcomes. Recently, several of these groups joined forces to release a document, “Federal Policy, ESEA Restoration, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” The Civil Rights Project at UCLA also issued a policy paper, “The ESEA Can Ensure that Discipline Serves an Educational Mission,” available at www.civilrightsproject.
At the state level, greater attention is being paid to the relationship between suspensions in middle school and dropping out of high school. Several states have created “early warning” systems to help prevent students from dropping out. Most recently, according to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts posted a report ( called_dropout_risks/), in which out-of-school suspensions was used as one of several key warning indicators for dropouts. The warning system is intended to help schools intervene and provide greater to supports to students whose behavior or low achievement signal a risk.

See the related article on page 5 of this issue of Poverty & Race and the page 7 Resources box.

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