There are reformers who wonder how why systemic reform of American public education matters in addressing the underlying racial issues that have led to the alleged murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown and the protests happening in Ferguson, Mo. All they need to do is to consider the data on overuse of suspensions and expulsions by the Ferguson-Florissant school district, which serves the kids in the St. Louis suburb.
During the 2011-2012 school year, 829 young black men and women were meted out one out-of-school suspension by Ferguson-Florissant. That’s 8.1 percent of the 10,197 black children attending the district’s schools, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Another 705 black children — or another 7.2 percent of kids — were suspended by the district more than once during the 2011-2012 school year. All in all, Ferguson-Florissant meted out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students.
Meanwhile Ferguson-Florissant meted even more discipline. This is in the form of in-school suspensions, which often involves tossing kids into rooms where they often sit around instead of learning in classrooms. While some have touted in-school suspensions as a better alternative to tossing kids out of school, the evidence suggests that this isn’t so. The district placed another 2,087 black children into in-school suspensions; that meant 20.5 percent of Ferguson’s black children, who make up the majority of the district’s population of 13,234, were kept out of classrooms.
Let’s put this into context compared to the white kids who attend Ferguson-Florissant. A mere 68 white kids — or 3.3 percent of the district’s white student population — was suspended only once in 2011-2012, while another 33 white kids (or 1.6 percent) were suspended more than once during the school year In-school suspensions were meted out to another 149 white kids, or 7.2 percent of the population.
Put simply, if you are a black kid attending Ferguson-Florissant schools, you have at least a one-in-seven chance of being subjected to some form of harsh school discipline. If you are a white kid, the chances are only two in 100.
Ferguson-Florissant kids weren’t being suspended because they were engaged in violent behavior or carrying guns. The district had no out-of-school suspensions for violent acts, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, nor were kids suspended for alcohol consumption. While Ferguson-Florissant’s suspension rate for drug use was 0.4 per 100 kids in its schools, that rate was only slightly higher than the 0.3 percent rate for the state as a whole.
Yet Ferguson-Florissant’s out-of-school suspension rate of 5.6 per 100 students is rate five times higher than that for the entire state as a whole. The length of times kids are suspended by the district is also high. On average, 2.2 kids per 100 students were suspended for 10 consecutive days during the 2011-2012 school year, almost double the 1.3 kid per 100 for the state overall. And Ferguson-Florissant suspended 3.4 kids per 100 students for more than 10 consecutive days, eight times the statewide rate of 0.4 per 100 students.
Are Ferguson-Florissant’s kids coming from violent and crime-ridden neighborhoods? Not based on the data. There were just two reported homicides per 100,000 people in Ferguson in 2012, a sixty-percent decline from the homicide rate of five per 100,000 in the previous year. The aggravated assault rate of 37 per 100,000 (a decline from 47 per 100,000 in 2011) is also extraordinarily low. Certainly Ferguson has higher levels of poverty than many parts of the United States. But as the data shows, poverty and crime aren’t correlated. Nearby Florissant, which is also served by the district, had a homicide rate of zero in 2012 and just one per 100,000 in the previous year; the city’s aggravated assault rate was 47 per 100,000 in 2012, a slight decline from 53 per 100,000 in the previous year. Keep in mind that 73,387 people live in both Ferguson and the much-larger Florissant.
Again, let’s put this in context: A black child attending Ferguson-Florissant schools is more likely to be subjected to harsh forms of school discipline than be affected by violent crime in their neighborhoods.
What is clear is that Ferguson-Florissant is likely suspending kids at high levels because of issues such as disruptive behavior and attendance, all of which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means that can both teach children the impact of their behavior on school communities and themselves while also giving them a path to getting back onto the path to graduation. With 47.1 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s fourth-graders reading at or below basic proficiency on the reading portion of the Show-Me State’s battery of standardized tests, the overuse of suspensions and expulsions shows that the district isn’t dealing adequately with the literacy issues that often lead to discipline issues.
The only good thing that can be said is that the out-of-school suspensions on their own have not led to a lower graduation rate; Ferguson-Florissant’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012 was a mere five points lower than the state average. But that could easily be because Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions is overcome by its proximity to other school districts; kids who are being pushed out by the district can attend other schools in districts such as the ever-woeful St. Louis and the soon-to-be-shut down Normandy district (from whose high school Brown had graduated before his tragic demise). Without such proximity, it is quite likely that Ferguson-Florissant’s graduation rates would be as low as many districts that overuse harsh school discipline. More importantly, given the low graduation rates for those surrounding districts, it is quite likely that those who have been subjected to suspensions and expulsions have also likely dropped out.
Certainly the experience of Ferguson-Florissant illustrates what decades of data on school discipline have shown long ago: That far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. That children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. That the underlying reasons for discipline have less to do with violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession,than with misbehavior that can be addressed through better means. That such discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) doesn’t improve school cultures or even makes schools safer for kids. That overuse of suspensions and expulsions lets teachers and school leaders off the hook for not addressing the learning issues at the heart of why kids act out in school.
We also already know that the consequences of such use of discipline is that kids end up dropping out into poverty and prison. Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Considering the high likelihood of young men dropping out of school landing into prison — especially young black male dropouts, who have a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34 — suspensions and expulsions often leads to academic, economic, and social failure.
But Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of harsh school discipline — and that of other districts throughout the country — isn’t just about a district failing the children who most need nurturing, high-quality education. It is also about this reality: What happens in our schools ends up in our streets. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of the police in Ferguson — and the evil they have shown toward the black people who live their and pay their wages — is mirrored by the unwillingness of those working within its schools to provide all kids with high-quality education.
In fact, districts end up bringing law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Truancy cases account for 33 percent of all status (or illegal only because the child is a minor) cases referred to the nation’s juvenile courts in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; schools accounted for 55 percent of all truancy referrals (and, given that schools often work closely with police departments, that rate is likely even higher). In fact, schools were the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies.
Because judges are ill-equipped to deal with most juvenile cases — which often results from some combination of shoddy education and bad parenting — the result is that our most-vulnerable children end up being put into a cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Or, as Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman would say, they become the usual suspects, and thus, are known as such to teachers, school leaders, and law enforcement.
But this perception isn’t just limited to those kids who end up getting caught up in school discipline and juvenile courts. All poor and minority children, especially young black men who are the ones subjected to educational abuse and malpractice, end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured and developed. As a result, they end up facing their virtual and literal Michael Brown moments, both at the hands of police and even at the hands of other black people. All this perpetuates cultures of death in which our kids are dehumanized, and then their futures and lives are slaughtered.
School reformers, especially those who try to downplay the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline on the futures of children, must realize that the damage of failed policies and practices done by districts against kids don’t stay within schoolhouses. Making the use of harsh school discipline rare and only for the most-serious offenses, along with overhauling how we provide kids teaching and curricula, is critical to keeping our children, especially our young black men and women in Ferguson and Florissant, on the path to futures in which everyone treats them with dignity and respect. The time for reformers to step up and lead, both within American public education and outside of it, is now.