Missouri schools continue to dole out harsher punishments to black students – and in particular, black students with disabilities – for disciplinary infractions than their white peers receive, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union on what’s been dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline.
The findings aren’t new, but they are troubling, says ACLU of Missouri Legislative and Policy Director Sara Baker.
“The fact that this is a consistent problem is something that’s worth noting,” Baker says. “This is not going away in the state of Missouri, and that’s why it keeps making the news. Every time we get new numbers for this, we recognize Missouri is not doing that well when it comes to school discipline and disparities.”
Missouri allows out-of-school suspensions of up to 180 days, the equivalent of an entire school year.
“That’s an incredibly long suspension,” Baker says. “Most states have a ‘suspension cap’ that’s closer to 10 to 12 days.”
These policies affect all black students but have a disproportionate impact on students of color with special needs, the ACLU found. Black students receiving additional services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act make up 16 percent of the overall special needs population but received 52 percent of out-of-school suspensions lasting longer than 90 days and 41 percent of suspensions lasting 11 to 89 days.
“These are students who should have additional protections afforded to them by federal law, yet we still see them not being protected under those standards,” Baker says.
These long suspensions have documented economic ramifications. Students who are put out of school for a full academic year are more likely to drop out, less likely to complete high school and far less likely go on to college. Many end up in the juvenile justice system as a result of a school referral. If they’re expelled from one school, they often can’t find another school willing to take them.
“You should not have the schoolhouse door locked behind you and be unable to get an education in the state of Missouri just because you have been suspended,” Baker says.
KCUR has reported that many districts are moving toward in-school suspension for all but the most serious of infractions. Baker says that’s a step in the right direction – with a caveat.
“It really depends on the quality of what in-school suspension means. If that in-school suspension means that a kid is just being sat in a room with no teacher and no resources, then it’s not that much preferable to an out-of-school suspension,” she adds.
Some schools, cognizant of high suspension rates, have asked teachers to try to address more minor problems in their classrooms. This can be an effective strategy in preventing discipline referrals, but Baker acknowledges it’s hard to teach the rest of the class when one kid is having a meltdown.
“That said, it’s one thing to say, ‘OK, the student is misbehaving, I need them to be apart from the class for a few minutes or an hour,’” Baker says. “It’s an entirely different thing to say, ‘I’m going to use the official discipline of the school to remove this kid from the classroom for days and weeks and sometimes months going forward.”
Baker says the ACLU can advocate for legislative solutions, such as fixing language in statute that allows for overly broad interpretations of “disruptive behavior” and “disorderly conduct.” But she says teachers and school administrators have to recognize that their own biases may be causing them to discipline students of color more harshly.
There’s also room for individuals and community organizations to improve the lives of young people who act out in school because they’re experience trauma at home.
“When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, it is a pipeline. It’s very long. There’s space to get involved,” Baker says.
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.