Suspensions fall, but disparities for some students persist

Student suspensions have plummeted in the last school year, but the rate is falling more slowly for black students and students with special needs, according to an analysis of new disciplinary data released  by the Department of Education.

A total of 53,465 suspensions were handed out to students in the 2012-2013 school year, a 23 percent decrease over the 2011-2012 school year, when nearly students received nearly  70,000 suspensions. That’s a significantly larger decline since the numbers began dropping in 2011-2012, after a new transparency law began requiring the city to release detailed data about suspensions and student safety.

“Sunshine is a great medicine,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director at New York Civil Liberties Union, which pushed for the transparency laws in 2010.

But Miller said she remained alarmed at the disproportionate number of suspensions that are given to black and Hispanic students and special education students.

Black and Hispanic students represented nearly 90 percent of all suspensions last year, even as they represent less than 70 percent of the total city school population. Thirty-four percent of the suspensions were given to special education students, which make up 12 percent of the student population.

White students, which represent 15 percent of the school population, received 6.8 percent of all suspensions.

The recent downward trend in suspending students follows years of steady increases that started almost immediately after Mayor Bloomberg won control of the school system. Last year’s numbers are still nearly twice the total doled out during the 2001-2002 school year, the year before school governance was consolidated to City Hall, according to NYCLU.

And while the new data shows the number of suspensions at city schools has continued to decrease for all student categories, black and special education students are taking up a larger chunk of those suspensions.

The share of special education students, in particular, has increased from 31.4 percent of suspensions during the 2010-2011 school year to 34.1 percent last year.

The data are the first indicators of what suspensions looked like for students with disabilities as special education reform rolled out across the city last year, which resulted in more students than ever in mainstream classrooms and integrated schools.

In March, the city released data showing a small decrease in suspensions for students in the pilot phase of those reforms. That was noted as an indicator of the initial success of those reforms, along with test score and attendance increases.

But last year’s suspension numbers show that suspensions of students with IEPs aren’t declining at a similar rate to other suspensions, though they have decreased in number since 2010.

Miller said the overall lowered numbers “does reflect a genuine commitment on the part of the Department of Education to reduce suspensions.” But, she added: “I don’t see that the DOE is taking the steps that we need to reduce those gaps,” Miller said.

In a statement, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said one reason for the decline was that schools were intervening earlier to address incidents before they escalate. Another was an initiative to help suspended students re-enter school to prevent repeat offenses. He offered a measured response to the persistent racial and ethnic suspension gaps.

“We continue to review the disparities in the numbers among race and ethnicity,” he said in a statement. “This is a national issue, and in our schools, we use constructive approaches to help our students understand the consequences of their actions and learn new strategies to resolve conflicts more peacefully.”