What a report on school suspensions found in Newport County

Students of color and students with disabilities in Newport County schools are still given out-of-school suspensions at a higher rate than their white and neurotypical peers, according to a new report out of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island released its follow-up report to a study it initially conducted in 2015. The latest report, titled “Still Over Suspended and Underserved,” analyzes suspension data from the three school years between 2016 and 2019. It concludes that, despite the state passing legislation in 2016 designed to curb the disparity by limiting the number of situations for which schools can give out-of-school suspensions, public schools across the state still suspend students of color and students with learning disabilities at a higher ratio than their peers.

Rogers High School students line up in school in 2021.
Rogers High School students line up in school in 2021.

“Schools, and the nature of the school environment, provide services central to the growth and emotional well-being of students,” the report states. “And as schools navigated the mental health, academic, and interpersonal needs of students during this crisis, the consensus on one aspect is resounding. The resources that students use and access at schools are invaluable to them, and schools should be concentrating on creating robust opportunities for students to engage with their education safely and beneficially.”

By the numbers

Like the rest of the state, Newport County school districts is no exception to this issue. The school district with the highest disparity for any population over the three school years analyzed, Portsmouth, suspended Black students at a rate more than five times what is expected given the number of Black students in attendance during the 2016-2017 school year. That means that although Black students made up about 2.2% of the Portsmouth School District population, they received 11.6% of all out-of-school suspensions, which is a ratio of 5.3. This is actually a higher ratio than Portsmouth had in the 2014-2015 school year, the year the ACLU of RI conducted its initial study.

Portsmouth was able to reduce the ratio of Black students given in-school suspensions down to 4.8 in 2017-18 and gave zero Black students out-of-school suspensions in 2018-19. Tiverton had the largest disparity of Hispanic students who received out-of-school suspensions in any year during the 2018-2019 school year. Although only 2.1% of the Tiverton School District population is Hispanic, Hispanic students made up 7.7% of students who received out-of-school suspensions, a ratio of 3.7.

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White students in all four districts were underrepresented in their district’s pool of out-of-school suspensions given their relative population size in their districts throughout the three years. The school district responsible for giving out the lowest ratio of out-of-school suspensions to white students over those three school years was Newport Public Schools. White students made up about 43% of the student body, but only 19% of out-of-school suspensions, a ratio of 0.4, for both the 2016-17 and the 2017-18 school years.

At every district for all three years, the ratio of students with learning disabilities, or more specifically, students with Individual Education Plans, given suspensions was consistently more than double what it should be compared to their percentage of the student population, except in Tiverton. However, Tiverton still gave more suspensions to students with IEPs more than what should be expected.

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“These high suspension rates show that, despite the protections which should be afforded to students with disabilities under both state and federal law, their removal from the classroom remains comparatively and inappropriately high, a damaging situation for students who may both need and be entitled to elevated levels of support,” the report reads.

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If we have learned anything from the pandemic, the ACLU of RI report states, it is that taking students out of the learning environment has a negative impact on their educational outcomes.

It also states that societal bias can lead people to misinterpret behaviors from certain students as more aggressive or disruptive than others, and students who are subjected to punitive discipline with little mental or behavioral health support often suffer academically or drop out of school, leading to higher chances of being involved in the criminal justice system. The report states that between 38% and 41% of all suspensions in the state for all three years were given for “subjective offenses,” such as insubordination, disrespect, disorderly conduct, and obscene or abusive language.

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In its conclusion, the report suggests the state revise the state law so less marginalized students are disproportionately taken out of the classroom. ACLU of RI recommends banning out-of-school suspensions for children in kindergarten through 5th grade (with some exceptions), mandate suspension data reporting for all schools regardless of apparent disparities and further restrict the kinds of offenses eligible for out-of-school suspensions.

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: School suspensions rates of minority, disabled students in Newport County