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Suspensions Are Down In U.S. Schools, But Large Racial Gaps Remain


Racial disparities in discipline begin with the youngest children.
LA Johnson, NPR

Racial disparities in discipline begin with the youngest children.

Suspensions in U.S. schools are trending downward. But the progress is incremental, and large gaps — by race and by special education status — remain.

This data comes from an analysis of the latest federal data for NPR in partnership with the nonprofit organization Child Trends.

It comes as the Trump administration is preparing the final report from a school safety commission that is expected to rescind Obama-era guidance intended to reduce racial disparities in school discipline. The commission, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and formed in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, is expected to release its final report later this morning.

The findings from the Child Trends analysis highlight the ways that disciplining a student who disrupts class can affect that student's education — and his or her entire life. And it shows that changes made since the federal guidance issued in 2014 are making a difference.

Kristen Harper, who directs policy development for Child Trends, says there's "a long way to go" and a continuing need for federal leadership. "Any efforts that could suggest that these issues are not important could undermine the work of states and districts."

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Research suggests suspension and expulsion, arrests and referrals to law enforcement, are associated with dropping out of school and going to jail. All of these consequences happen more frequently to black students, even in preschool. Sometimes they are punished more harshly for the same behavior as white students; often for nonviolent offenses. Students with disabilities are also punished more often and more harshly.

In 2014, with this body of evidence growing, the U.S. Department of Education issued detailed guidance on "how to identify, avoid, and remedy" what it called "discriminatory discipline." The guidance promoted alternatives to suspension and expulsion, and opened investigations into school districts that had severe disparities in discipline by race.

In the wake of that guidance, more than 50 of America's largest school districts instituted discipline reform. More than half the states revised their laws to try and reduce suspensions and expulsions. And, the new research from Child Trends suggests, they succeeded.

The researchers analyzed the federal Civil Rights Data Collection, which includes reports from every public school in the nation, over three years — the 2011-2012, 2013-2014, and 2015-2016 school year. Child Trends cautions that this analysis, which is based on numbers self-reported by schools, can't cover every possibility — for example, whether schools are calling parents to pick students up instead of putting an official suspension on the books. Or if they are suspending fewer students, but suspending them for longer periods of time.

Still, the researchers documented some heartening changes between 2012 and 2016.

  • The proportion of all students suspended from school at least once during the year fell from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent.
  • Among high school students, the percentage suspended fell even more, from 9.6 to 7.6 percent.
  • Hispanic high school students experienced the largest decrease — a 30 percent drop in suspensions, from 9.1 percent to 6.3 percent.
  • Suspension rates fell around the country, in each of the biggest-population states. Only one state, Mississippi, saw a persistent increase year by year.
  • Suspension rates fell faster for those most often suspended — African-American students and students with a disability.

But, on the flip side:

  • Black high school students are still twice as likely (12.8 percent) to be suspended as white (6.1 percent) or Hispanic (6.3 percent) high school students.
  • And students with a disability are also twice as likely (12.8 percent) to be suspended as those without a disability (6.9 percent).

We should note that NPR previously collaborated with Child Trends on a look at the Civil Rights Data Collection's school shooting indicator. That analysis found serious problems with the data reported. But Harper says that the out-of-school suspensions indicator is far more robust and reliable, partly because the data has been collected for longer, and also because suspensions are more common than shootings, so a few data entry errors are less likely to skew the overall trend.

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