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Here's What Happened When a District Changed Its Policy on Suspensions

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In recent years, states and districts around the country have changed their policies to limit student suspensions for vague, sometimes minor, infractions like "defiance" and "disruption."

Their aim is to reduce the use of suspensions overall and to cut back on disproportionately high suspension rates for black and Hispanic students. The argument is that poorly defined infractions are interpreted subjectively by teachers, opening the door for implicit bias to affect discipline rates. What one teacher sees as punishable defiant behavior may be seen differently by another, they've argued, especially when there's a racial mismatch between the student and the teacher.

So new policies required schools to only suspend students for breaking a more narrow list of more-specific rules. Did they work?

A case study released Tuesday explores the effects of such a policy change on suspension rates, attendance, and achievement in Philadelphia Public Schools. It comes as civil rights advocates fear the U.S. Department of Education may revoke Obama-era civil rights guidance that inspired many school districts to change course on school discipline in an effort to reduce racial disparities.

The report was released by the Thomas Fordham Institute, which has spoken out against that federal civil rights guidance, saying it is a top heavy mandate that takes decision-making out of the hands of educators and could lead to more chaotic classroom environments. Racial disparities in discipline rates may be a result of social factors that disproportionately affect students of color, like poverty and exposure to neighborhood violence, the report argues.

The 200,000-student Philadelphia district revised its code of conduct in September 2012, emphasizing in-school intervention over suspensions. Under the revised code, students were no longer allowed to be suspended out of school for "conduct violations" like failing to follow classroom rules or using profane or obscene language or gestures. For some other infractions, like public displays of affection and inappropriate use of electronic devices, students could only be suspended as a last resort.

Notably, only 18 percent of schools fully complied with the change. Sixty percent were "partial compliers," which means they reduced but did not eliminate their use of out-of-school suspensions for conduct violations, and 17 percent did not comply at all.

Among the report's findings:

  • Students who'd been previously suspended under the old code of conduct saw improved attendance, but not improved academic test scores in schools that fully complied with the rule change.
  • The district saw an initial drop in overall suspensions after the rule change, but that rate increased to its previous level after one year, in part because schools issued more suspensions for more severe offenses.
  • Students suspended for conduct infractions before the rule change were issued, on average, 1.45 fewer suspensions after the revision.
  • The change did not ease overall disproportionately high rates of suspensions for black students compared to their white peers. That's in part because as black students received fewer suspensions for more minor conduct offenses, they received more suspensions for more serious infractions.

When states and districts change discipline policies, it's not unusual to see results of a drop in suspension rates combined with persistent racial disparities that don't seem to be eased by the new approach.

And folks on different sides of the discipline debate will likely interpret these findings quite differently. Civil rights groups that support the recent wave of school discipline reform say it takes time to change school practices, to gain buy-in from teachers, to train all educators in alternative methods like restorative justice, and to improve school climates. They also advocate for increased resources and wraparound supports to help address some of the out-of-school factors,like poverty, that can contribute to students' behavior problems.

The Fordham Institute highlighted a different conclusion.

"Everyone knows that changing a district's policy on suspensions is unlikely to alter the underlying issues in tough schools—or in peaceful ones," the report says. "So viewing this as a civil rights issue and trying to fix it with top-down decrees is impractical and potentially harmful, whether those decrees emanate from the district, the state, or the banks of the Potomac."

Photo: Getty Images


Related reading on school discipline:

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