Something alarming has been happening in a number of Kentucky public schools over the past school year. Elementary suspensions in Jefferson County Public Schools rose dramatically, as more than 900 K-5 students were placed on out-of-school suspension, a nearly 68 percent jump compared to the 2014-2015 school year.
While fighting accounted for more than half of the elementary suspensions, many of the reasons given for the suspensions were non-specific, such as “disruptive behavior.” This news does not bode well for the suspended students. Data suggests that an out of school suspension can increase a student’s likelihood of placement into a disciplinary alternative school, and placement in a disciplinary alternative school can increase the likelihood of juvenile detention.
According to a 2014 article entitled “Reconsidering the Alternatives: The Relationship Between Suspension, Disciplinary Alternative School Placement, Subsequent Juvenile Detention, and the Salience of Race,” distinct subsets of alternative schools have emerged: those that deal with students at risk of dropping out and those that deal with students that are dangerous or disruptive.
The study focused on a cohort of students who were 3rd graders from 1997 to 1998, and evaluates their suspensions and placements in alternative schools up through 12th grade. The study highlights the disproportionate suspension rate according to race. 35 percent of the students are African-American, 61 percent White, and just over three percent represented other ethnicities. Over half qualified for free or reduced price lunch. However, the racial gap between students who face punitive discipline is large: 13 percent of Black students were placed in a disciplinary program, while only 3.8 percent of White students and 3.7 percent of students in other ethnic categories were placed.
While race was a key predictor for placement in a disciplinary alternative program, Emotional-Behavioral Disability (EBD), school mobility, school attendance, and grade retention were also indicators that increased the likelihood that a student would be placed in a disciplinary program. These indicators are beyond the control of the child. According to the authors, students “who attend 2 or more different schools within the same year are 19 times more likely to be placed in a disciplinary alternative school than students that don’t move.” But of all the predictors, “out of school suspension in a child’s schooling history was the strongest predictor” as to whether a student would be placed in a disciplinary alternative school
Furthermore, there is a high correlation between placement in a disciplinary alternative school and subsequent juvenile detention. One of the most striking facts was that 18 of the 34 students (52.9 percent) placed in an alternative school during elementary school also experienced subsequent juvenile detention. Additionally, 43.3 percent of middle school students and 24.6 percent of high school students who experienced placement in a disciplinary setting also experienced juvenile detention. This, according to the authors, “suggests that the alternative schools may be increasing – not reducing juvenile detention rates.” This also suggests that there may be ways to more effectively address students’ potentially disruptive behavioral issues at an early age without setting them on a path that could funnel them into juvenile detention.
If indeed this data highlights causation rather than mere correlation between trends in suspensions, placement in disciplinary alternative schools, and juvenile detention, the recent spike in out of school suspensions in Jefferson County is alarming.
Addressing the Issue
So, what can be done? One suggestion can be found in a chapter entitled “No More Closed Doors: Ending the Educational Exclusion of Formerly Incarcerated Youth” in A New Juvenile Justice System by David Domenici and Renagh O’Leary. They explore the ways in which students who have faced juvenile detention are often forced into mandatory disciplinary alternative programs once they’ve been released, despite the fact that they would prefer to attend a “regular” high school. According to Domenici and O’Leary, however, school accountability frameworks are increasingly incorporating “value-added achievement metrics,” which help track how they help students progress on test scores.
Thus, one way to prevent the funneling of students into disciplinary schools and juvenile detention is to change schools’ incentives. Schools should be rewarded for showing that they have helped their most at-risk students improve on tests, and loopholes that allow schools to disregard their accountability to these students should be closed. Schools must also cut down on their out of school suspensions. Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, recently credited increases on Miami-Dade’s NAEP scores in large part to the fact that Miami-Dade attendance went through the roof after they got rid of out of school suspensions. With the flexibility that ESSA provides in terms of alternative accountability frameworks, states should incentivize schools to help students who have traditionally faced disciplinary schools rather than using loopholes to disregard accountability for these students.
Christopher Lemos is a Research/Policy Intern at the American Youth Policy Forum.