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State schools suspend students at higher rates than average, study finds

August 7, 2012 |  4:45 pm

California suspended students from school at higher rates than average and showed particularly harsh handling of African Americans with disabilities, according to a study released Tuesday.

California ranked 15th of 47 states in their suspension rates of white and black students, according to the study by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.  It ranked eighth for Asian Americans and 17th for Latinos. In what the study’s co-author called one of the most alarming findings, 28% of black students with disabilities had been suspended in California at least once during the 2009-10 school year.

Overall, the state’s suspension rate was 7.1% for all students, 17.7% for blacks, 10.6% for American Indians/Alaska natives, 7.5% for Latinos, 5.6% for whites and 2.6% for Asian Americans.

“California has some very serious problems,” said Dan J. Losen, the study’s co-author. “Whenever you’re suspending this kind of high percentage of students, you are increasing their likelihood of academic failure and risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system.”

In March, the U.S. Department of Education released a report showing that black students were suspended disproportionately in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest. African American students accounted for 26% of suspensions; 9% of the students in the district were black.

The study released Tuesday is an initiative of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. It analyzed suspension data from nearly 7,000 school districts located in every state for the 2009-10 school year.  The study’s authors removed three states where the data was found to be “clearly inaccurate.”  The federal government will collect a new round of suspension data this year.

Overall, more than 3 million students lost time in school because they were suspended during the 2009-10 school year. Like other studies, the UCLA analysis found that African Americans and students with disabilities were suspended at disproportionately high rates. One of six African Americans were suspended, for instance, compared with one in 20 whites. Other studies have shown that black students are suspended at higher rates than whites for similar, minor offenses such as dress code violations or cellphone use.

Among the nation’s 100 largest school districts, San Bernardino Unified School District ranked 15th for suspension rates for all students.  L.A. Unified's suspension rates ranked 63rd.

Since the data was collected, however, several states –- including California -– have launched moves to replace punitive discipline practices, such as suspensions, with policies that use incentives for positive behavior. In California, several bills are pending that would encourage more positive discipline policies, narrow when suspensions can be used for behavior deemed defiant and require more rigorous data collection.

The report noted that some districts had low suspension rates and some states, such as Connecticut and Maryland, have recently adopted positive alternatives to suspensions.

“Across the nation, there are really disturbing suspension rates, but the point is that it doesn’t have to be this way,” Losen said. “We need to work to get back to using suspensions as a last resort.”

The report is available at www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu.

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--Teresa Watanabe

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