Citing a “persistently disproportionate use of disciplinary action and suspensions against students of color,” the ACLU of Rhode Island has called upon Providence school officials to take immediate action to address this problem before the school session starts next month – a problem that former school superintendent Christopher Maher attributed to “racism” before he stepped down from his post earlier this year.

In a letter sent this week to Acting Superintendent Frances Gallo and the members of the Providence School Board, the ACLU pointed to its review of the disciplinary data from the 2017-2018 school year, the latest that is available, to document severe racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions, especially  “for relatively minor and often subjective types of ‘misconduct,’ such as insubordination and disrespect.”

Among the ACLU’s findings cited in the letter from the recent data:

  • The  range of students most affected by this disparity are Black students in Kindergarten through 5th grade, “grades at which any suspensions at all seem suspect and counter-productive.”
  • Percentage-wise, Black students in those grades were three times as likely to be suspended as their white classmates.
  • A total of 201 suspensions of students in those early grades was reported, including 46 suspensions for Kindergarteners and first graders, and the vast majority of suspensions of these vulnerable children were for offenses such as “disorderly conduct” or “use of obscene language.” Suspensions like these are taking place despite passage of a 2016 law designed to limit their use.
  • Across all age groups, not only were Black students suspended more often, but the average duration of both their suspensions and those of Latinx students was 21 percent longer than the average duration of a suspension meted out to a white student.
  • These disparities have remained incorrigibly steady over time. During the 2014-2015 school year, the percentage of suspensions issued to Black students in the Providence public school district was 25.7 percent; during 2017-2018 school year, that percentage was 24 percent. Across these time periods, the percentage of Black students in the student body has consistently stayed around 16 percent.
  • Disturbing disparities also exist for students with disabilities. While students with IEPs composed 15 percent of the school population, they made up 28 percent of all suspensions.

The ACLU’s letter asked school officials to take four immediate steps to combat these disparities and the overuse of suspensions:

  • Suspension notices should specifically reference the standards in the 2016 law, which limits use of this discipline to seriously disruptive behavior, to confirm that the suspension is justified under that law.
  • The Administration should bar certain vague and open-ended infractions from serving as the grounds for an out-of-school suspension.
  • Elementary students should never be given out-of-school suspensions for any misconduct in the absence of evidence that it creates a clear and present danger to the health or safety of students or staff.
  • Although state law requires school districts to provide reports to RIDE on corrective actions they are taking to address suspension disparities on the basis of race and disability, Providence has never submitted such a report. One should be prepared and submitted immediately.

A copy of the ACLU’s letter is available here.