MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to switch gears now a little bit and talk about young students who are struggling. More than two million American students were suspended in the 2009 academic year. It turns out that certain groups, particularly boys of color and disabled students, are especially at risk of suspension and while you might think that that kind of sharp response gets the kids to stay on the straight and narrow, a new report says it's actually the opposite, that suspending kids actually leads to more drop-outs. That's all according to the report titled "Out of School and Off Track." It's from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies. That's an initiative of the UCLA Civil Rights Project.
The lead author of the study is Daniel Losen and he is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
DANIEL LOSEN: Thanks for having me on.
MARTIN: What got you started thinking about this?
LOSEN: Well, the Center for Civil Rights Remedies has actually been interested in this topic since 1999 and we are very committed to addressing concerns about educational inequity in America, especially along the lines of race. This particular issue, when we have the data available, shows just absolutely outrageous numbers of kids being suspended out of school, so it's really the high frequency.
And then, when we drill down, we see that it's black kids and kids with disabilities that are being suspended at rates that just shock the conscience. It's just an educationally unsound practice and there are real alternatives that work. So it does rise to the level of a civil rights violation when we see these tremendous disparities.
MARTIN: I think that, when a lot of people hear about kids being suspended, they automatically assume it's that they're acting particularly - in a particularly destructive or negative way. But your findings suggest that it's actually more complicated than that. Can you talk about that?
LOSEN: I think one of the things that this suggests is that we're not suspending kids as a measure of last resort, but often as a first or second response to minor misbehavior. And our study focused on secondary school, so middle schools and high schools. And 12 percent of black students in the early '70s were suspended out of school versus about 6 percent of white students. Today, it's 24.3 percent for black kids and only about 7 percent for white kids.
MARTIN: You're saying there's been a dramatic increase in the use of suspension. Why is that?
LOSEN: That's right. Did not break down the reasons for suspensions, but others have, so we see, in California, that most of these suspensions are for the sort of catch-all category called willful defiance. In other states, mostly lesser offenses - not that there aren't some, you know, behaviors that should be addressed - but an out-of-school suspension for truancy, dress code violations, using a cell phone in class, those sorts of things, are becoming very, very common.
MARTIN: I still don't get this whole concept of suspending somebody for being truant because, you know, in a lot of places, if you are late frequently, then you could be considered truant. Like they'll take three tardies or...
LOSEN: That's right.
MARTIN: ...if you're tardy three or four times, then that becomes - you're absent. So let's say you have asthma. You have to get yourself together before you can leave and you're tardy even three to five minutes and then you get a number of absent - so then you get suspended for being absent when the whole issue was you were tardy...
MARTIN: ...because you were sick.
LOSEN: It makes no sense.
MARTIN: I mean, what is that? I just think it's kind of bizarre.
LOSEN: I mean, the good news...
MARTIN: You know?
LOSEN: There are superintendents like Superintendent Alonso in Baltimore City who - when he came in, he said, we're not going to suspend any kids for dress codes or for truancy, period. And all these minor offenses, we're going to find other ways to deal with them. So there are superintendents that are starting to get it. That's the good news. The bad news is it's still going on in far too many schools and districts.
MARTIN: Well, you have to ask yourself, what's the agenda to suspend somebody for being truant? Is the idea to get kids out of the way so that they're not present when testing is going on so that they won't drag the scores down?
LOSEN: That's a big part of it, but more often, I think, it's the perceptions of educators. They see two kids shoving each other in the hallway. If they're white kids, a white teacher might - maybe I know their parents or have a positive - I'll go over and break it up. But, if they're black kids - oh, I'd better call the school resource officer. I'm not going to get involved. These are bad kids. And then they're, you know, suspended out of school for fighting when it could have been easily a situation that was deescalated.
MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though. You talk about these minor offenses and I just want to talk about the whole question of violating dress codes, because one of the things that you reported on - information from other sources that suggested that violating dress codes is one of the things that gets people suspended.
Now, you could look at that in one of two ways. You might say that's terrible because, in essence, you might be suspending kids for being poor. On the other hand, some people might say, well, you know what? Dress codes are a fundamental part of discipline. In some places, dress codes might be a way of combating gang influence. So, it is serious.
LOSEN: One of the leading sort of contributors to gang involvement is for kids to be out of school, so the idea that, because you're concerned about gangs, you're going to suspend a student out of school with no guarantee of adult supervision. That makes no sense whatsoever.
There's a study district-wide in Chicago that shows that the places where kids - even the schools serving the kids from the high-crime neighborhoods - those schools ranked highest on safety, both surveys of teachers and students, when there was a high level of teacher-parent and teacher-student engagement and those schools, coincidentally or not coincidentally, also had very low rates of out-of-school suspension.
What we need when kids are misbehaving in a way that we feel is serious, we need more adult interventions, ways to keep students within the community, but addressing the causes of their misbehavior in ways that don't shun them and increase the likelihood that they're going to join a gang.
MARTIN: I think one of the things that may surprise a lot of people reading this is how this is affecting students who are disabled or who have some form of disability. And, when we talk about disabled, what do we mean?
LOSEN: We're looking at short suspensions out of school and saying that they're twice as likely across all racial groups to be suspended out of school. These are kids with ADHD or kids who have emotional disturbance or kids with just a learning disability. They may be struggling. Sometimes, they may be misbehaving, but then they should be getting a behavioral improvement plan and other kinds of supports and services.
MARTIN: You released a separate summary of new research by 16 scholars nationwide. This was commissioned by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies also and they looked at the question of the effect that suspension has on kids and that is interesting. I think that might be surprising to some people. Could you talk about that?
LOSEN: One national study suggests that, especially for black and Latino students, it's a predictor of delinquency, but these kids aren't showing signs of delinquency until they've been suspended out of school. There has been another study that wasn't new that looked at middle school students across the state of Texas that showed two, three times greater risk for juvenile justice involvement.
It's an important issue for, I think, all parents to be aware of and part of what I'm concerned about is that parents have a right to know this information, but these data are not collected and reported to the public except for every other year when the U.S. Department of Education does it and then, most years, it's only a sampling of districts. So we really need - because of the implications for academics, I think parents need to know. Are they sending their son or daughter off to a school that's high suspending or their son or daughter with a disability to a school where those kids are being suspended at really high rates or are they going to a school - it could be in the same district - where suspension is really a measure of last resort?
MARTIN: Daniel Losen is the lead author of a new report called "Out of School and Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools." He's the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, which is part of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and he joined us from NPR member station WGBH in Boston.
Thank you so much for joining us.
LOSEN: Thanks so much for having me on the show.
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MARTIN: Coming up, we'll talk more about the rising costs of suspending kids from school. Now, we just talked about how it makes the kids feel.
KEISHA CAMPBELL: They mark you absent for 10 days and, like, me - I go to school every day so, like, those 10 days, like, messed up everything.
MARTIN: Now our parenting roundtable. We're going to talk about how to avoid suspension, how to advocate for your child and how to get him or her back on track. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.