In St. Louis area schools, some students are far more likely to be suspended than those least at risk — 20, 30 or even 60 times more likely, finds a new study from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and Forward Through Ferguson.
The study found that being black, male or having a disability places students at greater risk of out-of-school suspension (OSS). When all three factors — race, sex and disability — were taken together, the numbers increased dramatically.
“Every time we suspend a student, we risk harming their sense of self-worth, their sense of belonging in school, and ultimately their lifelong well-being,” said study co-author Karishma Furtado, doctoral candidate at the Brown School, and research and data catalyst at Forward Through Ferguson. “Our students pay a horrible price because of our broken system of school discipline, and ultimately so do we all.”
The report, “Falling Through the Cracks: Disparities in Out of School Suspension in St. Louis at the Intersection of Race, Disability, and Gender,” was published online Aug. 29 via the Forward Through Ferguson website.
Using publicly available data from the 2015-16 school year, Furtado and Alexis Duncan, associate professor at the Brown School, along with co-authors Jennifer Kocher, parent advocate, and Pranav Nandan, Brown School master of public health candidate, investigated how race, sex and disability came together to affect risk of OSS for kindergartners through 12th graders in the St. Louis region.
They focused on the 30 public school districts located primarily in the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County to align with previous work by the Keep Kids in Class Coalition.
The findings showed that while white girls with a disability were only 1.4 times as likely to receive an OSS than the least at-risk students (white girls with no disabilities), white boys without a disability were 2.7 times more likely to receive an OSS.
White boys with a disability were 9.1 times more likely. Black girls without a disability were 11.0 times more likely. Black girls with a disability were 18.1 times more likely. Black boys without a disability were 18.3 times more likely. The most at-risk students, black boys with disabilities, were 24.6 times more likely than white girls with no disability.
“The magnitude of the combined effect of race, sex and disability on risk of out-of-school suspension in the St. Louis region is astronomically high and nearly unheard of in public health,” Furtado said. “A person could smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for 30 years and face a lower risk of getting lung cancer than the risk of OSS for a black boy with a disability. In some districts, black boys with disabilities are 40, 50, even 60 times more likely to get an OSS than a white girl without a disability.”
While the report used St. Louis area data, the findings almost certainly apply beyond the region, Duncan said. “Decades of research show that being male, black and having a disability are well-established risk factors for suspension due to systemic barriers like inadequate supports in schools, bias and institutionalized racism,” she said. “Recent national studies have looked at disability status combined with race and found that the risks grow when you examine them intersectionally. We simply extended this to look at sex, in addition to disability and race.”
However, the St. Louis region and Missouri have historically had especially high racial disparities when it comes to school discipline, she said.
The authors suggest that OSS is not an effective deterrent to perceived bad behavior, particularly when the child’s behavior is only a signal of an underlying need or issue.
“The scientific evidence shows that OSS doesn’t prevent kids from misbehaving in the future, and it is related to all sorts of negative outcomes that we are trying hard to prevent, like dropping out of school and involvement with the criminal justice system,” Duncan said. “Time off of school may feel more like a reward than a punishment to many kids, so OSS may actually increase the likelihood of future misbehavior. In fact, the majority of kids who are suspended once go on to be suspended again.”
Few investigations of the school discipline gap have taken into account the many identities that children hold simultaneously, including disability status.
“When children with disabilities are suspended, it is often due to behavior related to their disability,” Duncan said. “OSS does nothing to help in these cases and has a lot of potential for harm. Students with disabilities don’t get the in-school services that they need and are already excluded from their typically developing peers in many ways — OSS just makes the problem worse.”
The report also discusses evidence-based strategies for closing the discipline gap and calls on parents, teachers and district leaders to redouble their efforts to implement them.
“In addition to restorative practices that take the place of exclusionary measures like OSS, we also know that schools can work to prevent problem behaviors altogether,” Duncan said.
Effective preventative measures include trauma-informed practices, positive behavior interventions and supports, social emotional learning approaches, and better using Individualized Education Programs to support children with disabilities.
The report suggests that school districts should work to promote restorative alternatives to suspension, reduce disparities and prevent challenging behaviors.
“We also have to seriously look into how we can ensure disparities in the way we discipline students aren’t driven by biases on the part of educators and administrators,” Furtado said.