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Policy and Practice Diverge in Disparate Ways When It Comes to School Expulsion

By Gabrielle Wanneh

While the use of expulsion among public schools has gradually declined over the last 14 years, disciplinary disparities between students of color and white students persist, according to new data from the Institute of Education Sciences. 

During the 2017-2018 school year, 70 percent of schools where fewer than 5 percent of students were minorities reported that their districts allowed them to use expulsion as a disciplinary action so long as it came with continuing services, such as tutoring or at-home instruction. Forty-six percent of those schools said they were allowed to use expulsion without such services.  

Meanwhile, 34 percent of schools with more than 50 percent minority enrollment reported that they were permitted to use expulsion with continuing services under district policy and 29 percent said they were allowed to expel students without providing any other services. 

When it came to actually using those disciplinary tactics, however, the proportions flipped. Thirty-one percent of the schools with high-minority enrollment, if allowed, reported actually using expulsion with continuing services and 31 percent used it without them. As for schools with low-minority enrollment, 26 percent of schools said they actually used expulsion with continuing services; only 12 percent used the action without them. 

This is, of course, not the first data suggesting that minority students tend to be disproportionately disciplined in schools as opposed to their white counterparts. 

Federal civil rights data have found similar gaps in discipline and access to rigorous coursework among students of color and students with disabilities. An Education Week analysis of federal data from the 2015-16 school year, for example, found that black male students made up 8 percent of all students in 2015-16 but accounted for 25 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of expulsions,

And students with disabilities made up 12 percent of all K-12 students during the 2015-16 school year, but 26 percent of those who were suspended and 28 percent of those who were arrested or referred to law enforcement.  

The concern among many educators and advocates, of course, is that out-of-school discipline could cause students to fall behind in school, and ultimately drop out—especially when no instruction or services are provided to keep the learning going. 

To Liz King, the director of education policy for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the newest data is a reminder that the numbers themselves are not enough. 

"Even when the numbers are smaller, that's still too many students being pushed out of schools," King said. 

She said the data highlight the ongoing reinforcement of racial disparities in the country's education system. Schools with higher concentrations of minorities enrolled tend to have fewer opportunities to provide students with the tools and the learning environment needed for them to excel in the same ways that their counterparts do. 

Now, King said, the coronavirus crisis presents an opportunity for schools to revisit questions of educational equity as they work to ensure that millions of students can continue learning despite having to stay home. The conversations that schools are having now about access to remote learning and other aspects of a new system, King said, need to be held all of the time and with a greater sense for equity for all students in mind. 

"When we think about going back to school, we really need to commit ourselves to ensuring educational equity across the board," King said."The one piece of normalcy that we should not return to are these disparities... now is the time for us to remove those barriers and mend these inequities." 

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