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Virginia School Suspensions Continue to Rise

In 2015-2016, Virginia public schools issued more than 130,000 suspensions, including more than 17,000 to children in pre-K through third grade.(Photo: @comedynose, Flickr public domain)

Virginia’s K-12 schools continue to suspend tens of thousands of students each year. One of the highest rates is in Richmond Public Schools. WCVE’S Catherine Komp and Saraya Wintersmith have more for Learning Curve.

Learn More: Read this year’s Suspended Progress report by Legal Aid Justice Center and RPS's 2016-2017 Discipline Data summary. It omits suspensions for elementary schools, but WCVE obtained that information which is included below.


Here’s how the numbers break down. In 2015-2016, Virginia public schools issued more than 130,000 suspensions. That’s more than 700 each day.

Amy Woolard: Unfortunately the overall picture has gotten worse.

Amy Woolard is an attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center. She says their updated report “Suspended Progress” shows other troubling trends, including more than 17,000 short-term suspensions given to children in pre-K through third grade.

Woolard: We're talking about 6 year olds 7 year olds. These are children who are just starting to form some of their social identity, certainly some of their academic identity and seeing them suspended, pushed out of school even for a couple of days at a time is troubling on a lot of levels. First, this is a time when kids are really forming their attendance habits and forming what it means to value coming to school every day, and if the message they're getting from the school itself is “when you make a mistake, you can't come here,” I think it's a really poor example of what we expect of them as students.

Woolard says short-term suspensions, up to ten days, can have a big impact on students.

Woolard: We expect a lot of students these days even at a very young age and being out of school for a week at a time, two weeks at a time can set a student back tremendously. The other concerning area with short-term suspensions that we saw is the actual number of suspensions was nearly double the number of students they were given to which means individual students were gathering multiple suspensions in a school year. And this can be a kind of pattern and practice that set students up for failure, it sets them up for harsher consequences down the road and it really can follow them throughout their academic career.

Here are the top offenses resulting in out-of-school suspensions: Defiance of Authority/Insubordination; Disruptive Demonstrations; Classroom or Campus Disruption; and Using Obscene/Inappropriate Language/Gestures.

Woolard: What we see anecdotally with some of our clients is that these can be in on the one hand what I would call normal teenage behavior, normal child behavior, and that's not to say that there shouldn't be consequences. But to have that consequence be a deprivation of education is a harsh move on our part.

The next highest category is disrespect/walking away. That resulted in 7700 short-term suspensions, and 35 long-term suspensions.

Woolard: And that can be interpreted differently depending on a particular situation, a particular school division. Sometimes we find that students who are labeled as to defiant or disorderly or disruptive, have a lot more going on, that there's a root cause to some of this, that if we took the time to uncover and address we might find a better outcome than suspension or expulsion. We have clients who as a coping mechanism might walk away to try to cool down after being upset and that's labeled as defiance and so I think nobody wins in those situations.

Black students and those with disabilities continue to be disproportionately affected. Legal Aid Justice Center’s analysis found that while  “African-American students made up 23% of the statewide student population, [they] received 59% of short-term suspensions, 57% of long-term suspensions, 43% of expulsions, and 34% of modified expulsions.” About 10% students with disabilities were short-term suspended at least once, nearly double the rate for students without disabilities.

Woolard: That is a huge red flag for the Commonwealth of Virginia. When we look at our students of color and our students with disabilities and especially the intersectionality of those two, students with color who have disabilities, we see extreme disproportion between those communities and their peers. There's been a lot of attention given to racial disparities and disability disparities, and it's pretty widely agreed upon that this is not about particular categories of students misbehaving more or having more trouble than their white peers or their non-disabled peers. This is about cultural competency. This is about paying attention to how we are doling out consequences, how we are responding to our students in the classroom.

Richmond Public Schools has some of the highest rates of suspensions, coming in at number four in 2015-2016. Rachael Deane is Legal Director with the Just Children Program at Legal Aid Justice Center.

They suspended more than 17% of students at least once, so those are short-term suspensions that I’m referring to. And even more trouble the race and disability disparities are quite prominent in Richmond Public Schools. During the 2015-2016 school year, RPS suspended more than one-fifth of all African American students and nearly one-third of all students with disabilities.

Last year, Legal Aid Justice Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Dean says that investigation is ongoing. Joining us now to look at more recent numbers for RPS is WCVE’s Saraya Wintersmith. What did you find for the 2016-2017 school year?

Saraya Wintersmith: The district released a four page document, the Discipline Data Summary for the 2016-2017 school year. We’re a bit limited with what we can see with this document, but it does show with the 24,000 or so students in RPS for that academic school year, there were almost 20,000 disciplinary incidents, 19,940 to be exact and 18,797 actions recorded for those incidents.

As you looked at this document, you noticed something was missing?

Wintersmith: So the document, even though it discloses a total number of in-school and out-of-school suspensions and does break down in-school and out-of-school according to middle and high schools, we don’t see any information related to elementary schools within RPS. So we had to do a Freedom of Information Act request in order to look at numbers for elementary schools.
And what did you find for Richmond’s elementary schools?

Wintersmith: The one page that we received about elementary school suspension data shows us that there were almost 3,000 incidents total of both in school and out of school suspensions the majority of them were out of school 2,525 of them at the highest numbers of those occurred at Woodville, Fairfield and Chimborazo. And then with respect to in-school suspensions there were 325, the highest numbers of those occurred at Broad Rock, Chimborazo and Ginter Park.

Next time, we’ll look school discipline alternatives and efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions. For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.