Suspending the Suspension Problem

From Racial Bias to Restorative Justice

This is the first in a three-part series on racial inequities in school discipline and the promising practice of Restorative Justice in Oakland’s schools.

A recently released study of K-12 suspension data by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies (CCRR) has added yet more evidence to a well-documented national trend: black students are suspended at significantly higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group.

Both district and charter public schools were found to suspend black students at more than three times the rate of white students. The rate of suspensions overall has steadily grown for decades, despite the evidence that suspensions are extremely harmful to individual students and decrease the achievement of the whole school.

The increase in suspensions has been disproportionately in high-poverty, predominantly black schools. Oakland is no exception.

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Suspension rates in secondary education, 2011-12 (CCRR)

Oakland Achieves
‘ analysis of district-run school data found disturbing disparities in Oakland’s suspension rates: African American students were suspended at ten times the rate of white students and more than three times the rate of Latino students in 2013-14. While suspensions by subgroup data for charter public schools are not yet available, there is no reason to assume they would be better.

We need greater equity in school discipline. At the same time, we must also ask: why are so many students being suspended at all?

In 2011-12, nearly 3.5 million students were suspended. That is enough students to fill nearly every stadium seat for every Super Bowl through 2011. The collective impact of 3.5 million suspensions cannot be overestimated. The chances of a student graduating high school fall by a third after just one suspension; the chances of dropping out of high school double.

Suspension rates in district and charter public schools are symptomatic of larger problems: racism, ableism, and retributive discipline – all of which feed into a school-to-prison pipeline that has devastated communities of color.

The chances of a student graduating high school fall by a third after just one suspension; the chances of dropping out of high school double.

 — Center for Civil Rights Remedies

Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has taken steps toward addressing racial bias in suspensions since it was entered into a “Voluntary Resolution” with the Office of Civil Rights in 2012. OUSD declared a ban on “willful defiance” suspensions and committed $1.5 million to Restorative Justice practices. However, there remains a lot of work to be done.

If the goal is to reduce the number of children whose futures are imperiled by suspensions, looking at averages for all schools may not be that useful. We can have a much greater impact by targeting the worst offenders. 13 schools in Oakland suspended more than 1 in 10 students in 2014-15. Of those 13 schools, 3 were charter-run and 10 were district-run (which is roughly proportionate to the number of schools for each).

GO Public Schools Oakland, in collaboration with a coalition of community partners, will be releasing the fourth annual Oakland Achieves report in May. This report will be the first ever to provide analysis of suspensions by race/ethnicity for both district and charter public schools in Oakland.

While all the data are not yet in, we can reasonably expect that some district and charter public schools are suspending far too many students and that the distribution of those suspensions will betray racial bias and ableism. One suspension can alter a kid’s life in ways from which they may never recover, and yet it remains the norm in school discipline. In part two of this series, we will explore how Oakland has been moving toward a new model – Restorative Justice.

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