2 Philly charters cited for disproportionately suspending students with disabilities

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Two Philadelphia charter schools have been cited in a national report for suspending students with disabilities at a far higher rate than those without disabilities.

A recent study, conducted by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, part of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, found that Philadelphia Electrical & Technology Charter and Esperanza Academy Charter School were among the nation’s 10 public charter schools with the largest discipline gaps when it comes to suspending students with disabilities.

Looking at the country’s more than 95,000 public schools and 5,250 charter schools, researchers analyzed disciplinary data for disparities in how charter schools suspend students. Overall, they found that charters suspended students at a slightly higher rate than traditional public schools.

The data focused on out-of-school suspensions during the 2011-12 school year, when all schools were required to report that information. The data included 80 charter schools in Philadelphia.

PET Charter, a career and technical education high school in Center City, was found to suspend disabled students at a rate 24 percentage points higher than those without disabilities. In fact, virtually all its suspensions were of students with disabilities, according to the data.

At Esperanza Academy, a grade 6-12 school in North Philadelphia that had more than 1,400 mostly Hispanic students, the discipline gap for disabled students was 19 percentage points.

Representatives from the schools did not return requests for comment.

On the national level, the average discipline gap was 6 points at the elementary level and more than 10 points at the secondary level, according to the study. Roughly one-fifth of charters had discipline gaps in the double digits.

“It appears that, instead of providing needed behavioral supports, the school is suspending these students because of behavior that is a manifestation of their disability,” the study said. “Whenever and wherever students with disabilities are denied educational opportunities because of their disability, it is a blatant violation of anti-discrimination law.”

The report tracked disciplinary disparities for Black students compared to Whites and those with disabilities compared to those without. Nationally, it found that Black students in charters are suspended at four times the rate of Whites, and disabled students at two to three times the rates of those not in special education.

Similar disparities exist in traditional public schools, although, on average, charter schools suspend students overall at slightly higher rates, according to the report.

In comparing Black and White suspension rates, no Philadelphia charters made the top 10 list of disparities.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has several provisions requiring that states, by this fall, review their disciplinary practices and submit plans for curtailing overuse of suspensions in order to receive federal funding.

The report notes that a wealth of research indicates that the frequent use of suspensions is harmful to all students. Harsh discipline policies lead to chronic absenteeism, are associated with lower performance and graduation rates, and a heightened risk for delinquent behavior and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

In order to curb the overuse of suspension, the report recommends replacing harsh, punitive, and zero-tolerance discipline policies with more effective alternatives. It also suggests that researchers identify and study charters with an exemplary school climate and that legislators support their replication.

“Many lower-suspending charter schools likely use effective alternative approaches to out-of-school suspensions and only turn to exclusion from school as a measure of last resort,” the study concludes. “While some charter schools are contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, others may provide excellent examples of non-punitive approaches that could help plug the pipeline.”

The Notebook compiled a chart of Philadelphia charters and their discipline gaps using data that accompanied the study. Though the data contained information on all charter schools, only schools that enrolled at least 100 students with disabilities were considered for the study.

Note: Schools reporting suspension rates above 100 percent were also excluded from the study. (Mariana Bracetti Academy, for example). These rates are not necessarily an error, though, because enrollment data was based on attendance for a particular day and not the entire year. Schools where students leave or enter at high rates can end up having suspended more students than were in attendance on the day the enrollment count was recorded.