5 insights break down how student suspensions are not falling equally

School administrators are issuing fewer out-of-school suspensions, but Black students and students with disabilities remain more likely to get suspended. 
By: | August 20, 2021

Even though school administrators are issuing fewer out-of-school suspensions, Black students and students with disabilities remain more likely to face this most serious punishment.

K-12 schools suspended an average of 4.5% of their students in the 2017-18 school year, which was down from 5.6% in 2011-12, according to a new study by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused on equity.

“It’s not huge but it’s a decline,” says Renee Ryberg, a co-author of the report and a Child Trends education researcher. “Some of that has come from policy shifts such as moving away from zero-tolerance to focusing on creating a welcoming, safe and supportive school climate. Administrators have had to be very intentional to make that progress.”

Racism and bias—compared to factors such as school demographics—remain the biggest drivers of the persistent disparities in discipline for Black and disabled students, Ryberg says.

Child Trends researchers have also found that schools are not replacing suspensions with harsher forms of discipline, such as expulsion or referrals to law enforcement. As for the decline, some schools may be informally suspending students by having parents come to pick them up without recording the incident as an official suspension, Ryberg says.

More importantly, many administrators have reduced the need for extreme disciplinary measures by creating more supportive school environments. This includes training teachers in mental health care and trauma-informed practices that focus on the reasons behind a student’s behavior rather than the behavior itself, she says.

As students return to schools after the stress of last year’s lockdowns, educators should look to their own emotional wellbeing so they can treat kids with grace and respect, Ryberg advises. “If we don’t, we risk not only perpetuating the huge inequalities that we see in exclusionary discipline but actually making them worse,” she says.

Here are more details on the Child Trends report’s key findings:

  1.  Suspension levels for Black students remain substantially higher: Suspensions of Black students declined at a slower rate than did the rates for Hispanic and white students. Suspensions of Black students decreased by 19.5%, from 9.7% in 2011-12 to 7.8% in 2017-18. Suspension of Hispanic students dropped by 30% in the same time period.  
  2. Suspension levels for students with students also remain higher: Suspensions of students with disabilities fell by 17% between 2011-12 to 2017-18. Suspension of students without disabilities fell at a faster rate.
  3. Two in five schools disproportionately suspend students with disabilities: This trend held steady from 2011-2018. Approximately 40% of K-12 schools—and half of secondary schools—suspended students with disabilities at higher rates. In 2017-18, 39.9% of public K-12 schools and 48.8% of secondary schools suspended students with disabilities at disproportionately higher rates, a 5.2% increase.
  4. Middle and high schools suspensions rates remain higher: Suspension rates above elementary school had fallen from 9.6% in 2011-12 to 7.4% in 2017-18, the latest school year for which data was available
  5. Suspensions have actually increased in some states: The average school in most states has suspended students less frequently since 2011-12. But schools in Mississippi and South Carolina reported suspending more than 10% of students in 2017-18, an increase since 2011-12.