RI ACLU: Higher Suspension Rate for Black & Hispanic Students

Jun 5, 2013

One day after releasing a report showing that African Americans in the state are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is out with a report showing a racial disparity in school suspensions. 

The civil rights group stopped short of calling it racial profiling, but says the issue is something education leaders need to study and correct.

The Rhode Island ACLU announcing a study that found minority students were more likely to be suspended than white students.
Credit Flo Jonic / RIPR

The American Civil Liberties Union invoked the state’s open records law to obtain eight years’ worth of disciplinary records for every public school district in Rhode Island. It took two years to analyze the data, but the results are finally in.

The ACLU found an average of 12,000 students are suspended for four-and-a-half days a year in Rhode Island. But blacks and Hispanic students are much more likely to receive the punishment than their white counterparts. Hillary Davis, who crunched the numbers for the ACLU, said the disparity is noticeable in every

“Over eight years nine percent of the student body has been black but 18 percent of the suspensions have been black students, a rate twice as high as we would expect,” said Davis. “For Hispanic students they comprise 28 percent of the suspensions which is 50 percent more than what we would expect to see.”

Davis said suspension has a lifetime of negative consequences.

“Students who are suspended from school are more likely to drop out of school, to repeat a grade. They’re more likely to end up at low-paying jobs or unemployed and very disturbingly they are far more likely to end up part of the juvenile justice system,” said Davis. “So when we see racial disparities the concern is that this is propelling black and Hispanic students particularly along a path away from a classroom and toward a courtroom. It’s something called the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Rick Harris, director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said suspensions are not only harmful, but they fail to deter the misbehavior.

“I never found a suspension, not even once, to be effective,” said Harris. “A suspension is telling only one message to that kid: that you don’t belong here; that we don’t want you here.”

Although the ACLU came up with some disturbing conclusions, the group failed to identify a cause for it.  Davis, the author of the report, declined to call it racial profiling saying, “at this point we can conclude that black and Hispanic students are at higher risk of being suspended from school for whatever reason,” she said. “And I think we need to look long and hard at why that is.”

The report has gotten the attention of state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.  She issued a statement saying she is concerned by both the number of suspensions and the racial disparities identified by the ACLU. 

The department has not objected to a bill currently stuck in a legislative committee. It would reserve suspension for only the most egregious offenses and require school departments to examine their disciplinary records for evidence of racial profiling.

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