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Black, disabled students disproportionately suspended in Virginia, report says
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Black, disabled students disproportionately suspended in Virginia, report says

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Black students in Virginia were suspended about four times as much as Hispanic and white students in 2015-16, according to a report released Tuesday.

In total, Virginia schools issued more than 131,500 out-of-school suspensions during the 2015-16 school year, according to the report from the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia-based organization that works to fight injustice. The out-of-school suspensions were given to about 70,000 students, meaning the average student who was suspended received about two suspensions in 2015-16.

The news of an increase in out-of-school suspensions comes after the state’s suspension rate had dropped for four years. The rate of suspensions dropped by more than 20 percent from 2010-11 to 2013-14, according to the report, before flat-lining in 2014-15. The number of short-term suspensions rose by 1.8 percent from 2014-15 to 2015-16, the report says.

“Exclusionary discipline is myopic and harmful — we cannot continue to use access to education as a punishment for student conduct and expect positive results from either students or schools,” said Amy Woolard, Legal Aid Justice Center attorney and author of the report. “When children are suspended from school, they are more likely to experience academic failure, drop out of school, have substance abuse issues, have mental health needs, and become involved in the justice system.”

The report also found that students with disabilities were suspended about three times as often compared with nondisabled students. A black male student with a disability was about 20 times more likely to be suspended than a white female student who did not have a disability, according to the report.

In the report, Woolard advocated for changes at the state and local levels to scale back the use and duration of suspensions and expulsions.

“The Commonwealth should direct greater resources toward in-school supports like counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, and alternatives to exclusion, like restorative practices, positive behavioral supports, and social and emotional learning,” she wrote. “School staff, parents, and students should engage with each other in designing codes of conduct to reframe discipline in ways that focus on strengthening students and schools, rather than defaulting to punishment and isolation, which often lead to students dropping out.”

A total of 282 students were expelled across the state in 2015-16, according to the report.

While middle schools and high schools saw the most suspensions — 1.5 for every 10 students — pre-K through third-graders were suspended about 17,300 times, according to the report.

Much of the disciplinary action is taken against black students.

Black students constituted 23 percent of Virginia’s student population, according to the report, but saw a disproportional amount of suspensions at 59 percent of short-term suspensions, 57 percent of long-term suspensions, 43 percent of expulsions and 34 percent of modified expulsions.

Richmond had the fourth-highest short-term suspension rate across Virginia divisions, according to the report, with about 18 percent of students being suspended up to 10 days at least once.

“An entire generation of students is being harmed by exclusionary discipline practices,” Woolard wrote. “Many of the divisions with the highest suspension rates are also some of Virginia’s most economically disadvantaged divisions — meaning that Virginia’s most vulnerable students are also most likely to be pushed out of school.”

The city of Richmond also had 452 long-term suspensions — suspensions that last 11 to 364 days — according to the report, and 23 expulsions.

Woolard’s report gave these five recommendations to lawmakers and school divisions:

  • The General Assembly should pass legislation that limits the use and duration of suspension and expulsion, most especially for elementary school students;
  • The General Assembly should direct the Virginia Department of Education to collect and report data on alternative education programs offered by local school divisions to students subject to disciplinary measures like suspension and reassignment;
  • The governor and the General Assembly should fully fund the Virginia Board of Education’s 2016 revisions to the Standards of Quality — most especially lifting constraints on school support staff positions — and should also adjust current targeted funding formulas to better support economically disadvantaged students and schools in high poverty areas;
  • Local governments and school divisions should direct resources into proven alternatives to suspension and expulsion, like restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of supports, and social and emotional learning programs; and
  • Local school divisions, parents, and students should engage with one another in designing codes of conduct to reframe discipline in ways that focus on strengthening students and schools, rather than defaulting to punishment and isolation.

Bills directing the state education board to set up guidelines for suspension alternatives for local school boards were passed this year by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

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