ACLU of RI Report Details “Alarming” Rates of School Suspensions of K-5 Students and “Extraordinarily High” Suspension Rates of Students Based on Race and Disability

The ACLU of Rhode Island released a report today detailing the significant number of out-of-school suspensions meted out each year to Rhode Island public school elementary school students, including kindergartners, often for such minor offenses as “disrespect.” The report also makes plain the “discriminatory and harmful suspension patterns” in the out-of-school suspension rates for students, adversely affecting Black, multi-racial and Hispanic students, and students with disabilities.

The report examined suspension data for the three years preceding the Covid-19 pandemic — 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019. The disparate results were consistent: Every year that was studied mirrored results that had been tracked over a period of two decades, showing “severe” suspension disparities of students of color and students with disabilities across all grades.

Highlights from the report include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • In the 2018-2019 school year, there were 116 out-of-school suspensions of kindergartners and first graders, and about a third of those suspensions were for subjective and minor offenses such as “disrespect” and “insubordination.” There were more than 1,400 suspensions of K-5 students that year, and that made up almost 15% of all the suspensions issued that year for all grades.
  • At their lowest rates across these three school years, Black and multi-racial students statewide experienced out-of-school suspensions at a rate more than one-and-a-half times higher than would be expected for their population, and Hispanic students were over-suspended at a rate 1.3 times that which would be expected for their population. Comparatively, the highest rate of suspension that white students experienced was still much less than what would be expected for their school population.
  • Across each school year, students with disabilities were at least two-and-a-half times as likely to be given an out-of-school suspension as students without a disability.
  • These significantly disproportionate rates of suspension of students of color and students with disabilities have been consistent for more than 15 years.

In order to address these disparities, the ACLU report urges, among other recommendations, legislation to significantly curb the ability of schools to issue out-of-school suspensions to K-5 students, and to hold school districts more accountable in analyzing suspension data and responding to any disparities on the basis of race or disability that their data may show. The report also suggests that school districts are ignoring a 2016 law that was designed to limit the use of out-of-school suspensions to only serious acts of misconduct. Instead, the report shows students are inordinately suspended for minor and subjective types of misconduct such as “insubordination” or “disrespect."

ACLU of Rhode Island Policy Associate Hannah Stern said today: “In order to truly provide an equitable, uplifting, and educationally enriching school environment for all students in our state, we must make sure that no students are being inappropriately removed and excluded from the classroom. Normal adolescent misbehaviors or social-emotional needs should not be met with punishment. Rather, we must ensure that students have appropriate supports, and that discriminatory practices are being actively eradicated from schools.”

Legislation that incorporates some of the report’s recommendations is expected to be heard at the State House in the coming week or two.