School suspension rates drop, but minority students still over-represented

A new state law has significantly reduced the number of students being suspended from school, but it has not diminished Connecticut’s racial disparity in use of the disciplinary technique.

During the 2010-11 school year — when the law went into effect — the number of out-of-school suspensions statewide dropped by 19 percent, or 9,835 incidents, newly compiled data shows.

But Latino students are still twice as likely to be suspended and blacks three times as likely as their white counterparts, the data shows.

School suspensions by race

According to the Connecticut Department of Education’s new information, Latino students accounted for 36 percent of suspensions in 2010-11 while making up 19 percent of the state’s school-age population. Black students accounted for 39 percent of all suspensions, but comprised 13 percent of all students.

This disparity was highlighted in a national report released last month. It put Connecticut at the top of the list for its rate of suspending Latino students during the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year for which the U.S. Department of Education has comprehensive data. And despite the recent progress in reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions overall, the state Department of Education reports that the number of suspended minority students has stubbornly remained consistently disproportionate over the past several years.

“When you look at who is being suspended, it is quite shocking,” said Daniel Losen, a researcher with University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project. Losen said this “alarming disparity” catches the attention of lawmakers and school officials and spurs them to fix it.

Nevertheless, the overall drastic drop in suspensions is “an encouraging trend,” said state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

The culture is changing.

Students who habitually skipped class at Cromwell High School used to be suspended from school for up to 10 days. That changed two years ago when an in-school suspension program was launched. Now students are sent home only if they pose a danger or disrupt others. In the 2010-11 school year, 535 students were placed on in-school suspension and 68 suspended out-of-school.

Waterbury Superintendent Kathleen Ouellette said while “some incidents will still warrant suspensions,” she’s deployed several initiatives to ensure that students are not being sent home for minor infractions like dress code violations, talking back to their teachers or skipping class.

“We are trying to reach them and intervene before it escalates to that point,” she said, noting her high schools have a student support center and counselors on staff. Students who merit in-school suspension are sent to an in-school-suspension room where they are expected to complete their classroom assignments.

But Waterbury — like most other districts — suspends Black and Hispanic students disproportionately to their enrollment rates. For example, while 28 percent of students in Waterbury are black, these students account for 38 percent of all suspensions. (See suspension rates by district here and here)

“I do believe there is more work to be done,” said Ouellette.

Joe Cirasuolo, the executive director of the state’s superintendents association, said he knows that there is a huge disparity in who is receiving punishments in schools across the state, but needs more details to figure out what exactly is going on.

“Is it a matter of discrimination? Or is it a matter of behavior issues among certain populations? Either way, you still have a problem that needs to be dealt with,” he said. “When students are in school they learn. We need to do everything we can to make sure they are in that seat each day.”

Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based education advocacy group, has reported on several occasions detailed studies showing that those who are suspended face increased odds of dropping out of school and committing acts of juvenile delinquency.

“We must ensure that at-risk students experience as much engagement with school and as much continuity in the learning process as possible,” Pryor said.