The Indiana House on Monday unanimously passed a bill aimed at reducing suspensions, school arrests, and expulsions — punishments that are doled out to Black students and students with disabilities at alarmingly high rates.
In Indiana, Black students account for 27 percent of students who receive an out-of-school suspension, despite the fact that Black students make up only 12 percent of the statewide student population, according to 2014 U.S. Department of Education data. One in five Black students are suspended compared to one in 20 white students.
Researchers have found evidence of teachers’ implicit bias, such as disparities in how teachers react to misbehavior in a Black student as opposed to a white student. Black girls are often viewed as less innocent and in less need of protection than white girls, and Black boys are typically perceived as older than they are.
The bill — which is currently headed to the Senate — would require the state Department of Education to create a framework for an evidence-based plan to reduce disproportionality in out-of-school suspensions, as well as to limit law enforcement involvement in student discipline and reduce school-based arrests. Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, the department would work on implementing these plans.
At a hearing prior to the bill’s passage, a few school administrators who opposed the legislation said some schools have already implemented restorative practices, while other opponents said it would take power away from educators and administrators.
Indiana is one of five states with suspension rates that exceed national averages. U.S. schools suspend an average of one in 16 students, while Indiana suspends one in 14 students. The state also punishes students with disabilities at higher rates. Indiana suspends one in seven students with disabilities, compared to one in 17 students without disabilities.
The bill would also require, upon a school’s request, that the department provide information and assistance on “professional development and other resources” to implement the plan. An interim committee would be tasked with studying restorative justice practices and positive student discipline in K-12 schools. Restorative justice practices focus on community-building and conflict resolution, instead of punishment, to improve the quality of education for students. The Department of Education would also conduct a survey on current school discipline policies to understand how often schools are currently using restorative justice practices.
Higher rates of suspensions and school-based arrests for Black students and students with disabilities is a national problem. On average, 16 percent of Black students are suspended compared to 5 percent of white students. And 13 percent of students with disabilities are suspended compared to 6 percent of those without disabilities. Black students account for only 16 percent of student enrollment, but they represent 31 percent of those who experience a school-related arrest. Similarly, students with disabilities make up a quarter of students arrested, despite being only 12 percent of the student population. Furthermore, Black students with disabilities are disproportionately restrained at school. This trend is also gendered, since black girls are particularly targeted for harsh discipline. Black girls are suspended at a higher rate than any other race of girls and most boys.
A 2016 study published in the journal Social Problems, authored by Brea L. Petty and Edward W. Morris, found that one-fifth of the Black/white achievement gap could be attributed to suspensions, and that exclusionary school punishment harms academic student growth. Exclusionary discipline can also have adverse effects on students’ reading and math achievement even if they haven’t been suspended. This is especially true if a school has low levels of violence, but high levels of exclusionary discipline, according to a 2014 study by the same researchers.
Despite the high rates of suspension across the country, the practice isn’t effective as a deterrent because it doesn’t address the issues that cause students to misbehave and it doesn’t improve safety, research shows. School districts that have been working on reforming student discipline practices, such as Syracuse City School District, have focused on the causes of students’ behavior and provide professional development sessions on adverse childhood experiences and fight-or-flight responses to problems that remind them of trauma. The Indiana bill would require schools to address traumatic stress for students with these experiences.
Other states have also recently introduced or passed legislation focusing on reducing high suspension rates and racial disparities in student discipline. This year, Arizona state Rep. Reginald Bolding (D) introduced a bill that would stop schools from suspending and expelling pre-K through second grade students, with exceptions if students are an immune danger to staff members or other students. Last year, in Ohio, state Sen. Peggy Lehner (R) introduced a bill that would set a baseline for each school’s number of suspensions and expulsions of non-violent young students. After a year, the schools would have to cut the number to 75 percent of the total, and then to 50 percent the next year, and so on. Lawmakers have introduced similar bills in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Colorado, Virginia, and D.C.