Abstract: Comparing School Suspension Rates and Racial Disparities in Urban and Suburban Districts: Evidence from Greater Pittsburgh (Society for Social Work and Research 22nd Annual Conference - Achieving Equal Opportunity, Equity, and Justice)

Comparing School Suspension Rates and Racial Disparities in Urban and Suburban Districts: Evidence from Greater Pittsburgh

Sunday, January 14, 2018: 8:44 AM
Marquis BR Salon 14 (ML 2) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
James Huguley, Ed.D, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Gina Keane, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Abel Koury, Ph.D, Data Analyst/Researcher, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background/Purpose: In urban schools: In response to challenges related to poverty, limited institutional resources, and inexperienced teaching staff, many urban schools have heavily relied on suspensions and expulsions to quell what they see as student-driven climate issues. Conversely, however, overwhelming evidence has demonstrated that suspensions are detrimental to individual student success, particularly for high need students. Further, emerging but limited research suggests that the overreliance on suspensions poses negative academic outcomes school-level as well. Lastly, little attention has been given to the racial dynamics of suspensions in suburban contexts specifically, although American racial histories suggest disparities may be greater in such settings. In response, the current study uses data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to examine trends in local suspension rates to examine: 1) general trends in rates across districts; 2) contrasts in patterns between urban and suburban districts, including racial patterns; and 3) the degree to which changes in suspension rates over time are associated with achievement outcomes.

Method: Data are from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Safe School Reports, for Allegheny Country school districts (N = 58). Regression and difference tests were used to determine 1) the demographic characteristics of districts that were most likely to have issues with the overuse of suspensions; 2) the prevalence and degree of racial disparities across districts and district types; and 3) the degree to which shifts in suspension numbers were associated with changes in academic outcomes.

Results: Findings revealed that 45% of districts were above the state average of 9 suspensions per 100 students, with urban districts on average having higher suspension rates overall. However, racial disparity rates were on average much higher in suburban districts, where Black student suspensions tended to be 4 to 8 times higher than the rates for the rest of the student bodies. Overall, 66% of county districts had Black suspension rates that were at least twice those of the rest of the student body, and 80% of districts had problems with overall high suspension rates, excessive racial disparities, or both. Results also showed that independent of racial and SES compositions, higher suspension rates tend to be associated with negative academic outcomes at the district level, particularly in terms of graduation rates.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings here add support to the burgeoning notion that reliance on school suspensions has negative consequences for overall academic achievement at the school level.  As such, these results support the notion that programmatic and social supports are more conducive to changing schools’ behavioral climates than are punitively focused methods. Additionally, this study presents the novel finding that despite attention to urban districts in national studies, suburban districts tend to have much higher racial disparities than do their urban peers. Overall, these results suggest that school social workers and other specialized support staff play a greater role in school-level climate change, particularly in implementing more person-in-context and relationally oriented discipline reforms.