Report: School suspension and expulsion rates higher for children of color

Attorney Robert Appel filed a lawsuit against the Vermont State Police on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington on behalf of Rhonda Taylor. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

Attorney Robert Appel filed a lawsuit against the Vermont State Police on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington on behalf of Rhonda Taylor. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

A report showing students with disabilities and students of color are being suspended and expelled in the state’s public schools at much higher rates than their non-disabled, white peers was released Tuesday by Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont School Discipline Reform Coalition.

More than 8,000 class days were “lost by Vermont students in 2011-2012 due to school discipline practices resulting in exclusion,” according to the report.

The rate at which students with disabilities were suspended, the report showed, is two to nearly three times higher than their non-disabled peers, and “students of color were more likely than white students to be disciplined in Vermont schools.”

The report was released at a press conference in the Cedar Creek Room at the Vermont State House. Robert Appel, the former head of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, was one of those present.

Appel has long been interested in how children are treated, starting early in his career when he worked worked in juvenile law, and later, as a former Defender General of the State of Vermont.

“It became clear to me that we have a school-to-prison pipeline here,” as many states do, said Appel, now an attorney in private practice in Hinesburg, and a member of Diversity Now, a group which works on equity issues in Burlington.

Of who ends up in that pipeline, Appel said he has observed over the course of his career that, “It tends to be by race, by socio-economics and by disabilities of all varieties.”

A few years ago, a complaint came to the Vermont Human Rights Commission, when Appel was still in charge of the Commission, regarding a first-grade African-American boy who had not been able to make it to the bathroom, and ended up urinating on a wall.

It was wintertime, and the janitor who witnessed this happen punished the boy by making him wash the outdoor brick exterior wall where he had relieved himself without his coat on, and with his classmates watching, said Appel, in an interview before the press conference where the new report was released.

“Would that have happened if he was white? I don’t know,” asked Appel.

The Burlington School District today is made up of about one-third students of color, said Appel.

Appel is a member of the Coalition which worked with Vermont Legal Aid on the report made public Tuesday, titled, “Kicked Out! Unfair and Unequal Discipline in Vermont’s Public Schools.”

The report states that students who are expelled from school and have serious school issues at a young age are more likely to drop out, and to end up incarcerated and living in poverty.

“We know early on that young people who have issues can and should be addressed early on in their lives, and if we miss that opportunity, their behaviors continue to be more and more negative,” said Appel.

Interventions later on are much costlier, in the human sense as well as the financial sense. “Our priorities are askew,” he said.

Calling attention to the patterns that show far higher rates of suspension and expulsion of students with disabilities and students of color is a way to make decision-makers aware, and to “keep their biases in check when they act to correct bad behaviors,” said Appel.

Appel, a former school board member, acknowledged the schools have an increasingly difficult job, and many children are being raised in complicated circumstances. “Most kids don’t have parents the way we did,” he said. “Kids are exposed to very negative influences.”

The objective of the report, which looked at both state and federal data, is to ensure school staff pay more attention to treating all students fairly and use positive, not punitive discipline in schools, explained Jay Diaz, staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid and the report’s lead author.

“Too many times kids are being kicked out of school when they deserve better, especially students with disabilities and students of color. We don’t think any kid is actually born bad,” Diaz said. “We have a responsibility as adults and as a society,” to do better by those children, he said.

Students who have suffered early abuse, who have bounced between foster homes and who are homeless are more likely to be disciplined by school staff.

In some cases, the report’s researchers were unable to get a hold of socio-economic data which might show, for example, how suspension and expulsion rates fare among students who receive free and reduced lunches. Diaz said data aligning those pupils with discipline was not available.

In Burlington, however, such information is tracked for schools, and Diaz said nine of 10 students suspended there are on free and reduced lunch. Suspension, Diaz said should be used as a last resort.

Diaz, who works with Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project, said he’s been working with students across Vermont the past two years, and has worked with about 100 students, witnessing that often students with disabilities or students of color were being denied their due process rights.

Diaz said the issues raised in the report are not unique to Vermont.

“Across the country, this is a major issue,” he said. “This is something people are talking about across the country, and we are having similar issues here in Vermont.”

To get the picture of where Vermont was, Diaz turned to federal data available to the public and analyzed it, looking at every school in Vermont that had complied with the collection requirements for the Civil Rights Data Collection.

“We’re trying to get some traction on systemic changes,” said Diaz. “I think we need changes in the law to make sure that schools are better equipped to deal with misbehaving kids and that they are able to provide equitable services to all kids, particularly those with disabilities.”

The report contains four specific recommendations for policymakers consider including: a change to state law to limit exclusionary discipline through the use of positive behavioral interventions; to allow students to continue to learn during periods of suspension; to strengthen students’ constitutional and civil rights by providing due process; and to identify examples of programs that are working in Vermont by ensuring accurate and timely statewide data collection and publication.

The report relied on data from the Civil Rights Data Collection of the federal Office for Civil Rights and the Vermont Agency of Education’s database. It also used publicly available information from the Burlington School District’s Equity and Inclusion Report. The report only used information about race in schools where there were more than 20 students of color identified, it was noted.

The authors note that the federal data was incomplete because some schools, districts and supervisory unions were not included “presumably because they failed to report their data.”

Members of the Coalition, which includes leaders from Vermont Legal Aid, the Vermont ACLU, the Vermont Coalition of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs, the Human Rights Commission, Disability Rights Vermont, Vermont Family Network, Vermont Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, Office of the Defender General, Hunger-Free Vermont, Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, Diversity Now, Youth Development Programs, and Voices for Vermont’s Children.

Amy Ash Nixon

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  • Dave Bellini

    “Most kids don’t have parents the way we did,”

    So, why not form a coalition to improve parents?

    “Disabled” isn’t defined in this article. More than likely it’s a very, very broad definition. Kids that misbehave for whatever reason get labeled as “disabled”. The behavior creates the diagnosis of “disability.” Today there is a mania to “medicalize” everything, put kids on an IEP, give them a diagnosis. Everybody(not just kids) is ADD or ADHD. Better make sure they all get pre-K.

    • Jim Smith

      Where’s the “Like” button when you need one? Seems like a rationale for hiring more 1:1 paraeducators with platinum-plus health insurance plans. Hold onto your wallets come property tax time.

  • Greg Lapworth

    Yes, please have the author of the article define disability. Mr. Appels definition will be interesting to see. Bet we will be surprised.

  • paul lutz

    VT is the whitest union in the nation, but we are pushing to change that by bringing in refugees. Problem is, have the accepted our culture? Do they want to be an American?

    What portion of these kids are failing students? What portion of the kids come from completely broken families. Numbers can really twist reality.

  • Jim Smith

    Below is a quoted paragraph from a recent Poor Elijah’s Almanac column written by Peter Berger, an English teacher at Weathersfield School. I think his sentiment about the impact other students have on each other as being a significant contributor to the issues our education system faces, both in terms of cost and quality, is spot on. You just can’t fire the students, no matter how they behave or how much they cost. And that behavior and cost can be attributed to a host of social issues that can’t help but invade the classroom.

    “I’m not against firing irremediably bad teachers, but the flaw in the
    coach and team analogy is that teachers aren’t the whole team. Most of
    the players in a school are the students, and we can’t fire them, even
    in cases where they daily sabotage other students’ education or pose a
    physical danger to other children. That lunacy, the insistence that
    disruptive, dangerous students have a right to occupy space at school
    while they steal other children’s educations, is one of the chief
    reasons schools can’t educate their students. Add the common, though not
    inevitable, consequences of poverty, and the irresponsibility,
    complacency, and sense of entitlement that pervade American society and
    infect American students, and you have a recipe for failure that happens
    at schools but isn’t necessarily the fault of those schools.

  • dan thompson

    Ah another wonderfully manipulated study created and spun for assist their agenda.

    The third paragraph reveals it right away: “students of color were more likely than white students to be disciplined in Vermont schools.” This is a theory injected by the people who wrote the report. If they were unbiased and reported strictly on the facts the heading would read “non-white students were disciplined at a higher rate than white students.” or something along those lines

    The bias indicated in that simple sentence indicates that there wasn’t anything scientific in the report with controls, or neutrality.

  • Rick Scott

    in 2012, there were 89,900 students enrolled in public schools through out Vermont, using 180 school days as a multiplier, that 16,183,440 education days. 8000 while a startling number when delivered as a headline with no context is just under 5 one hundredth of one percent. While it’s possible that expulsion has not been executed perfectly in every instance, I don’t believe it represents a state wide crisis that requires legislation. Our educators are generally adept at dealing with behavioral & discipline issues, and each case should be considered on it’s own merits, if an administrator is overzealously expelling, it should come to the attention of the Superintendent through the normal course of supervision, or by complaint. If that isn’t working, parents or guardians (para’s or teachers) should appeal to the School Board. This process is one of the key virtues of local control.

  • Jim Christiansen

    More information regarding the types of incident resulting in suspension would be nice.

    I believe that concern for the rest of the classroom, those subjected to the behaviors of the suspended, should also be considered.

  • Paul Richards

    “A report showing students with disabilities and students of color are being suspended and expelled in the state’s public schools at much higher rates than their non-disabled, white peers was released Tuesday by Vermont Legal Aid and the Vermont School Discipline Reform Coalition.”
    I hope they didn’t strain their brains too much and spend a lot of time on this. We really needed a “Coalition” and a report to tell us this? What is the purpose of it?
    The “communications and journalism” schools are teaching “journalists” to relate EVERYTHING to race. Just look at nearly any “news” outlet and you will see this repeated again and again. Look at the President, the Attorney General and all of their followers and see that this is the tone that has been set. This is part of the “fundamental transformation” of this country. Does anyone have to wonder why al sharpton has visited the White House over 80 times? Is it a mystery what effect a 20 year relationship between obama and Jeremiah Wright had on the young aspiring politician? What influence was Frank Marshal Davis on the young Barry Soetoro?
    It does not take a rocket scientist or a “coalition” or a report to figure out what is going on.

  • Jim Daley

    “Would that have happened if he was white? I don’t know,” asked Appel. (Re the kid peeing on the wall)
    If he doesn’t know, why mention it at all.
    Is the janitor a racist?
    Typical holier than thou rant with lots of conjecture and fault-finding but not one thoughtful suggestion on solving the issue.

    • Paul Richards

      “If he doesn’t know, why mention it at all.”
      Because it keeps the national narrative going. The President, his followers and the media (aka; useful idiots) have set us on a path of fundamental transformation and this is all part of it; so called white privilege and keeping us all agitated across any and all possible groups (racial, age, economic, legal/illegal etc.) . The slow hand reaching around the backs of our heads to slap us is the ever growing size and power of government and the ever shrinking freedoms and control we have. It’s now a government for the government not a government of the people by the people.

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