By Stefanie Jackson – In Virginia public schools, black students account for 22% of enrollment but 52% of all students suspended.
The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) is conducting studies to determine why black students are being suspended at rates disproportionate to the rates of suspension for non-black students, and what can be done to correct the issue.
Jennifer Piver-Renna, director of the VDOE office of research, discussed the department’s findings in a webinar titled “Reframing School Discipline Part 1” March 5.
Suspensions and expulsions are examples of “exclusionary discipline” that seek to punish students by removing them from the classroom, and they contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Piver-Renna said.
But the school-to-prison pipeline is not a “direct path,” she said. Rather, students become disengaged when they are in an unwelcoming school climate, and that disengagement “snowballs” over time.
VDOE calculated every Virginia school district’s risk of suspending black students at higher rates than non-black students.
A score of 1 to 1.9 is low risk, a score of 2 to 2.9 is moderate risk, and a score of 3 or more is high risk. Those numbers mean how many times more likely a school district is to disproportionately suspend black students compared to non-black students.
Accomack and Northampton were two of 16 school districts at high risk for disproportional suspension rates for black students.
A total of 63 school districts were at moderate risk, 36 were low risk, five school districts had no disproportionality, and 12 had too few students to calculate.
Northampton had a high relative risk of suspension for black male students; both Northampton and Accomack had a high relative risk of suspension for black female students.
Schools with higher suspension rates for black students are more likely to be high schools in an urban setting. They are also more likely to have a higher overall suspension rate, fewer black students, fewer black teachers, and more poverty, Piver-Renna said.
An analysis of the data suggests that a lack of teacher diversity in schools may be partly to blame for disproportional rates of suspension for black students.
Virginia schools with higher percentages of both black teachers and black students suspend a smaller percentage of black students, the study found.
For every 1% increase in the number of black teachers in a school, the suspension rate for black students in the school decreases by .03 percent.
That may not sound like a lot, but the numbers add up, Piver-Renna said.
As part of the statewide push for more teacher diversity in schools, the Diversifying Teacher Workforce Act was passed unanimously by the Virginia General Assembly in 2019.
Virginia public schools are making progress toward achieving more racial diversity in the teacher workforce.
From 2016 to 2017, more than half of Virginia school divisions improved their ratios of black teachers and black students.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of Virginia school divisions that employed no non-white teachers decreased from nine to six.
There is no single solution for reducing suspension rates for black students and blocking the school-to-prison pipeline, but increasing teacher diversity is a “promising strategy,” Piver-Renna said.
She cautioned that there is no “blanket approach” and all school divisions are different.
Discipline policies should be examined, but don’t swap out one bad policy for another, she advised.
How policies are implemented is also important. Schools may consider implementing more student supports and fewer punishments.
Other recommendations include giving teachers professional development on implicit bias, teaching students cultural curriculums, and updating the school’s use of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.
Piver-Renna said school divisions should carefully examine the policies and “treat the cause of disproportionality and not the symptoms.”