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Suspensions Exacerbate the Elementary School Attendance Crisis

Attorney General Harris interviewed by reporters

Out-of-school suspensions have long been a common form of punishment in California for student behavior problems, including in elementary school.1 Yet, given the harmful effects that missing class time can have on a student, and the disproportionate number of students of color, particularly boys, who are subject to suspensions—many have called for a reevaluation of this practice.

  • African American children represent only 18% of preschool enrollment, yet they account for over 40% of all preschool students suspended at least once in 2011-2012.
  • From 1st through 5th grade, African American students are suspended more than twice as much as White students. In 1st and 2nd grade, they are suspended up to 3xs more than White students.
  • Suspensions in elementary school are an important indicator of whether or not the same students will be suspended in high school.

Lost learning time due to suspensions and racial disparities in suspension rates start as young as preschool. A 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights of 1 million preschool students revealed that in 2011-2012 nearly 5,000 preschool students were suspended once and over 2,5000 preschool students were suspended more than once.2 Moreover, while African American children represented only 18% of preschool enrollment, they represented 42% of all preschool children suspended once, and 48% of all preschool children suspended more than once.3 These racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions represent serious losses in learning time for the nation’s youngest students.

Suspensions as early as preschool and elementary school are particularly problematic because they can pave the way for future issues with discipline. A Connecticut study found that suspensions in elementary school are an important indicator of whether or not the same students will be suspended in high school.4 Another report similarly found that students who are suspended in the 6th grade are more likely to receive office referrals and suspensions by 8th grade than their peers without suspensions.5 Ultimately, higher suspension rates are associated with higher rates of future involvement in the juvenile justice system.6

Recognizing the impact that suspensions can have on students’ academic trajectory, the My Brother's Keeper report, part of an initiative led by President Barack Obama, recommends eliminating suspension in early learning settings. In addition, the report suggests that an "increasing awareness of the negative impact expulsion and suspension can have on young children is the first step to improving outcomes in this area.”7

Suspensions also affect a district’s funding because a suspended student is treated the same as an absent student for the purposes of ADA funding. Therefore, the higher a school district’s suspension rates, the lower their funding will be. One school district stated in our survey that suspensions alone cost their district $400,000 in ADA funding in the 2012-13 school year.

The Information Gap in Elementary School Suspensions

California’s ability to track elementary school student suspensions is currently limited. Information on the number of suspensions in California, broken down by grade, is not publicly available. In addition, the state does not track the number of days missed for each suspension.

A 2010 UCLA study based on a sample of districts estimates that 2.7% of all elementary students in California received an out of school suspension in the 2009-2010 school year, or over 167,000 students.8 A more recent report prepared by the California Department of Education reveals that thousands of elementary students still miss critical learning time due to suspensions.9 In fact, in 2012-2013 there were almost 50,000 elementary school suspensions for “willful defiance” alone. Willful defiance is the most common grounds for suspension in California,10 and accounts for approximately 43% of all K-12 suspensions.

Grade Level Total "Defiance" Suspensions Unduplicated Count of Students Involved in "Defiance" Suspensions11
Kindergarten 2,255 1,516
First Grade 4,072 2,627
Second Grade 4,143 2,753
Third Grade 5,058 3,294
Fourth Grade 6,090 4,125
Fifth Grade 8,124 5,483
Sixth Grade 17,519 10,335
Total 47,261 30,123

Suspensions Disproportionately Impact Disadvantaged Students

African American students represent only 8% of the sample, but account for 20% of the days missed due to suspensions.

Information gathered from a subsample of 32 California school districts also demonstrates the way in which elementary school suspensions exacerbate the attendance crisis, particularly for disadvantaged students. In the Aeries sample of approximately 147,000 students, 5,000 days of school were missed due to suspensions alone. These numbers suggest that elementary students in California may be missing over 113,000 days of school each year due to suspensions.

Furthermore, 1 out of every 5 days missed due to suspension was based on the suspension of African American students (representing only 8% of students in the sample) while almost 2 of every 5 were accounted for by the suspension of Latino students (representing 44% of students in the sample). These data clearly demonstrate the way in which suspensions exacerbate the attendance crisis, particularly for disadvantaged students. African American students missed more than twice as many days of school per student due to suspensions than White students. American Indian or Alaska Native students also missed more than two times as many days of school per student due to suspensions than White students. In addition, the number of school days missed per student due to suspensions was three times as high for special education students and five times as high for foster students when compared to all students.

These numbers are a stark reminder of the disprortionate impact of suspensions on the attendance of disadvantaged student populations and the need to reevaluate discipline policies that remove students from the classroom.12

Assorted Record Keeping on Suspensions

How districts record suspensions is also of concern. In our 2014 district survey, nearly a quarter of school districts stated that they do not distinguish suspensions from other absences in their attendance tracking systems. If districts do not distinguish between suspensions and other absences, it is impossible for schools to identify which absences are attributed to discipline and which are a result of the student’s or family’s own barriers to attendance. This makes it more difficult for these districts to understand the causes behind a student’s poor attendance, and to intervene appropriately.

Once again, the state has a key role to play in efforts to better understand the impact of discipline policies that increase a student’s time out of school. By upgrading state infrastructure, suspension and attendance data can be shared across districts and statewide to inform policy and practice, and reduce unnecessary student absences.

  1. See generally Daniel J. Losen, Tia Martinez, and Jon Gillespie, Suspended Education in California, CENTER FOR CIVIL RIGHTS REMEDIES AT THE UCLA CIVIL RIGHTS PROJECT (April 10, 2012), http://tinyurl.com/n9y7qgo.
  2. Civil Rights Data Collection, Data Snapshot: School Discipline, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION OFFICE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS, Issue Brief No. 1 (March 2014), http://tinyurl.com/k6gccn3.
  3. Id.
  4. Lost Class Time The State of Suspensions in Bridgeport Schools, Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition 4 (2009), http://tinyurl.com/k5ladne.
  5. Russell Skiba & Jeffrey Sprague, Safety Without Suspensions, 39 EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 2 (September 2008), http://tinyurl.com/o8y5rjm.
  6. Anne-Marie Iselin, Research on School Suspension 3 (2010) http://tinyurl.com/ngudfsd.
  7. My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Report to the President, THE WHITE HOUSE 8 (May 2014), http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/053014_mbk_report.pdf.
  8. UCLA Civil Rights Project, Out of School & Off Track: Reports by District—California (2009-2010) (April 14, 2013) (noting the information in these tables is available for every school district that reported its data to OCR in 2009-2010), http://tinyurl.com/opxa6tc.
  9. CDE, Data Reporting Office, Report Created July 8, 2014 from CALPADS EOY3.
  10. Other grounds for suspension include: weapons possession, illicit drug related suspensions and suspensions due to a violent incident.
  11. The unduplicated count is the number of elementary school students suspended one or more times. The total “Defiance” suspensions includes all suspensions, including multiple suspensions for a single student.
  12. Suspensions Exacerbate the Elementary School Attendance Crisis
Chapter 2
Fulfilling the Promise of LCFF for California’s At-Risk Student Populations
Chapter 4
Prevention & Intervention Efforts