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Suspension Rate of Black Students In Missouri Is Second Highest In Nation (And Kansas Has Issues, Too)

When I was in the classroom, most of my students were well-behaved most of the time. Of course, teenagers being teenagers (I am certified to teach high school), there are times when I had to caution young people about their behavior. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was surprised to find that when I disciplined a young African American man about his behavior, the response would often be an angry retort such as “You’re just prejudiced!” This type of response surprised me, because — while we all harbor prejudices — I did not intend to single students out due to their gender or skin color. After pondering this matter for some time, I came to realize that it is perfectly possible for many people with good intentions to work in a flawed system treating students in a prejudicial manner. Sometimes this flawed system may even create civil rights violations.

Too Many African American Students Are Suspended From School

Because of my classroom experiences, I was not surprised when a report released this week showed the suspension rate for African American students in Missouri is the second highest in the nation. Almost 23 percent of African American students in our state spend time at home or on the streets instead of in the classroom. And the situation isn’t much better in Kansas.

Kansas — with almost 17 percent of African American students being suspended from school during the academic year — has the 16th worst record in the United States. Although that seems to be an awful lot of kids, Kansas’ record approximates the national average.

Nationwide, an average of 17 percent of African American students received suspensions during the 2009-10 academic year, which is the latest for which statistics are available. The federal government is in the midst of processing information submitted by districts for 2010-11, and it will take a few months for the information to percolate up to be available to the public.

Illustration Credit: KC Education Enterprise

“Thinking about this data should create a sense of alarm about this group of students and others experiencing high rates of suspension,” writes Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, which issued the report. The report is based on statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. “Putting students who face serious challenges on a path that leads them to detach from school or cut the already weak ties that prevent them from dropping out is a misguided practice. It is not enough, of course, to simply blame the schools. These patterns often reflect a lack of knowledge about how to work effectively with these groups of students and a lack of systems for solving real problems within schools. It is clear that exclusion is not a cure, but nor is overlooking unacceptable behavior.”

Not As Many Suspensions for White Students

Less than 5 percent of white students in Missouri received suspensions during the 2009-10 school year, meaning there is a gap of almost 20 percentage points between the rate at which they and students of color experience this type of punishment.

The national average is 16 percentage points.

In Kansas, only 4 percent of white students receive suspensions, creating a gap of 12.8 percentage points between their experience and that of African Americans.

Statistics vary among districts, but generally suspension rates for Latino students and other ethnic minority groups in Missouri and Kansas are only slightly higher than those for white students. Numbers of other students of color do not come near the suspension rates for black students.

African American Special Education Students Spend Even More Time Out Of School

African American special education students are even more likely to be suspended at least once during the course of the school year. This problem is especially acute on both sides of the state line in the metro area.

Kansas’ suspension rate may be near the national average. However, that state is not average when it comes to the disciplining of African Americans with disabilities. Missouri and Kansas are both ranked among the top 10 worst when it comes to suspending these students. Almost 30 percent of disabled African American students in our two states received suspensions during 2009-10.

Illustration Credit: KC Education Enterprise

National Context

Nationwide, there are eight states where less than 10 percent of African American students received suspensions during the 2009-10 school year.

In Montana — the U.S. state with the best record — white students are slightly more likely than African American students to receive suspensions, and the rate for both is low.

Illinois was the state that beat out Missouri as having the worst record for suspending black students.

Illustration Credit: KC Education Enterprise

Suspension is a Problem for Students & Society

Students receiving suspensions are more likely to drop out of school, to be unemployed and even to go to prison, according to The Civil Rights Project co-director Orfield. Not only is this type of punishment  problematic for students and their families, but what happens to them becomes a drain on the economy and the community, as well.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In 1972, the national suspension rate for African American students was only 6 percent, according to the report by Orfield’s organization.

How Bad Is the Problem In Our Community?

On the local level, the St. Louis metropolitan area has a worse problem than Kansas City. In 2009-10, The Special School District of St. Louis County  at 55 percent had one of the highest suspension rates in the nation for African American students. Their experience goes a long way toward explaining why Missouri has the second highest suspension rate in the United States.

However, three districts in the Kansas City metropolitan area have suspension rates above the national average for black students, as well. On the Kansas side of the state line, the problem is not as pronounced, but there are still three districts with suspension rates above the national average.

To read the second article in this series — a closer look at suspension rates in Kansas City metropolitan-area districts for African-American students — click HERE.

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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.

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