The Maryland State Department of Education acknowledges that African American students and those with disabilities are disproportionately suspended throughout the state — and that it's a problem, often leading to academic disengagement and involvement with the criminal justice system.
But MSDE's solution won't improve the situation. A proposal submitted to the State Board of Education in January, in response to 2014 regulations that require school districts to seek fair treatment for all students after years of disparity, allows school systems to wait to address disproportionate suspensions for minority and disabled students until their removal rate from a particular school reaches three times that of others students in the building and the average state removal rate. This three-times standard is an unconscionable acceptance of a highly problematic practice, as it fails to identify all disproportionate out-of-school discipline.
The decision to set a threshold of three was driven in part by MSDE's concern about its ability to provide intervention to the large number of schools that would be identified under a more progressive standard. While resources are a valid consideration, the protection of students' civil rights cannot be conditioned upon the availability of funding and resources. Furthermore, it is critical that this process be made transparent through the public dissemination of disproportionality data, which could be done without the additional provision of resources and could in itself ameliorate the problem. All school level data should be made public in order to identify not only offending schools, but also high-performing schools. Publicly acknowledging the problem is a first step in addressing discriminatory practices that harm children, families and communities.
Data released by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) for school year 2015-2016, for example, found that 25 percent of suspensions and expulsions involved a student with a disability, while students with disabilities only comprise approximately 12 percent of the entire student population. Similarly, African-American students make up 34 percent percent of the student population but accounted for 64 percent of suspensions and expulsions. This is unacceptable.
One remedial step to address the overuse of suspensions generally is to ban suspensions and expulsions for very young students from pre-Kindergarten to second grade, with limited exceptions. This is the goal of legislation currently being considered by the General Assembly in House Bill 425 and Senate Bill 651. Rather than imposing out-of-school suspension or expulsion on our youngest learners, these bills would require school systems to use alternatives to suspension, such as positive behavior supports and interventions or behavior intervention plans. Research shows that these measures are more effective in addressing challenging behavior than suspensions and expulsions, while avoiding the negative impacts of exclusionary punishments, such as academic failure, increased school dropout rates and increased entry into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
We urge the legislature to pass these bills and MSDE to reconsider its decision to identify schools as disproportionate only once their removal rates are three times that of other students. Our children's futures depend upon it.
Aarti Sardana is a law student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and intern at Disability Rights Maryland; she writes on behalf of the Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline, a group of organizations committed to keeping youth in school and on track to graduate by ensuring school discipline practices in Maryland schools are fair and appropriate, and Maryland Law's School-to-Prison Pipeline Clinic which works to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. She can be reached at email@example.com.