Disproportional rise in student suspensions among Black and Latino students and students with disabilities – Time for a wake-up call

November 17, 2015

Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Kevin Dwyer

If you are a teacher and have 20 children in your secondary school classroom and they are representative of the nation’s school population then, statistically one or two of them, will be suspended at least once this school year. Almost universally, suspension means no instruction and no academic learning for more than three (3.5) school days. According to a well documented report titled: “Are We Closing The Discipline Gap? (February 2015 The Center for Civil Rights Remedies) suspension is used arbitrarily, in racially biased ways and that suspension is an unproven disciplinary intervention and doesn’t positively change behavior. In study after study the negative impacts of suspension are evident. 

The report reminds us of the serious impact of suspension on academic learning:  

  • “Loss of classroom instruction time damages student performance. For example, one recent study (Attendance Works, 2014) found that missing three days of school in the month before taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress translated into fourth graders scoring a full grade level lower in reading on this test.”   

A full grade level of lost reading proficiency! This Center for Civil Rights Remedies report also presents the alarming statistic that, in the United States, each year, 180 million days of instruction are lost to exclusionary discipline such as suspension (ibid. page 4). We also know that suspension is correlated with the juvenile justice pipeline to prison, dropping out, lower employment and lower post high school education.     

The “discipline gap” in the title of this report focuses on ethnic, racial and disability disparities in the use of exclusionary discipline of suspension. So, for example, in the 2011-12 school year more than 23.2% of Black high school students were “out-of-school suspended” at least once whereas 6.7% of White students were suspended. Remarkably, 18.1% of students classified as disabled were out-of-school suspended that school year. Latino students are also suspended at higher rates than their White peers.

Students with disabilities who have an individualized educational program/plan fare even worse than their racial/ethnic White peers with IEPs. Black male students with disabilities top the suspension rates with one in three (33.8%) being suspended. One would think that these students with disabilities, particularly those with emotional/behavioral disabilities, would have their behavior properly addressed as a component of their IEPs. Think of the positive impact of group counseling, cognitive behavioral treatment, social emotional learning, individualized instruction and related services that should be incorporated in their IEPs. I have never seen an IEP that had suspension as an intervention or a special education service. Nor have I seen the effectiveness of suspension as an intervention that has been monitored or reviewed. In fact suspension blocks all special education services for the number of days the IEP is not implemented! I know that there are regulations that limit total days suspended for students with disabilities, but those regulations do not address the disparity.     

One surprise for me was the report’s finding that suspension, as a tool for discipline and safe schools has increased over the past four decades. So, Black k-12 students suspensions have moved from 6% in the 1972-3 school year to 16% in 2012-13. Research over those decades has consistently shown that outcomes for suspension are extremely negative for suspended students and also that schools with high rates of suspension are not seen as any safer by either students or staff. 

I am particularly alarmed by these data showing that year after year, up until 2012 there has been an increased use of this failed disciplinary intervention. More alarming is this failed intervention is used disproportionally for Black and Latino students and students with disabilities when so many educators and mental health professionals known that effective alternatives to suspension are available – and have been for decades. Yes, alternatives and effective academic and behavioral techniques might cost a bit more money and would require reframing policies and practices but the status-quo is costing us far more in both dollars and lost populations of students. It is bad practice and a violation of equal educational opportunity for both Black students and children with disabilities. It screams of institutional racism as well as prejudice against the disabled, particularly those with emotional disabilities. 

On the very bright side there are many examples of changes in state laws, district policies and practices designed to address the folly of suspension and its prejudice use. The White House even held a summit on the disparity (see:

The “Are We Closing The Discipline Gap?” report, among others gives school systems, school administrators, staffs and families ways to examine their discipline policies and directs readers to examples of successful initiatives to reduce disparities and suspension rates for all students. You can also find out where your state is on the discipline disparity report card. 



Kevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007 the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000 he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.

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