• Michael Buettner may be reached at email@example.com or 722-5155.
PETERSBURG — Virginia schools continue to suspend tens of thousands of students each year over disciplinary infractions, and two Tri-Cities school systems remain near the top of the list for sending problem students home.
According to a report released Tuesday by the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center, public school systems across Virginia issued more than 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to more than 70,000 students during the 2015-16 school year, the second year in a row the rate of suspensions has increased.
“The majority of suspensions were issued for minor offenses, with approximately two-thirds of all suspensions given for behavior offenses such as possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect or using inappropriate language,” author Amy Woolard wrote in the report.
The report shows that Petersburg’s short-term suspension rate – the percentage of all students who have incurred at least one short-term out-of-school suspension each year – has been the highest or second-highest in the state since at least the 2011-12 school year despite an overall downtrend, from 22.3 percent in 2011-12 to 18.2 percent in 2015-16.
Petersburg City Public Schools spokeswoman Leigh Ann McKelway said the school division “understands that for students to achieve academically, they need to be in school and engaged in learning. While suspension is sometimes necessary in order to maintain a safe, orderly and nurturing learning environment, the district is working to reduce the number of suspensions.”
The school system has developed a new strategic plan, called Innovate 2022, that “includes multiple action steps designed to improve student behavior,” McKelway said. “As we move forward to achieve our mission of developing 21st-century citizens able to effectively collaborate, communicate and innovate, we believe that the need for out-of-school suspensions will diminish.”
Hopewell has also been high on the list over that period, with its suspension rate increasing from 10.6 percent in 2011-12, when it ranked 25th-highest, to 11.8 percent in 2015-16, when it stood at 19th-highest.
Hopewell City Schools Superintendent Melody Hackney said in an email that the school division “is disappointed by the results of the report, but dedicated to improvement. Our administrators spent countless hours over the summer working on alternatives to out-of-school suspension for all students for this year. Preliminary data is looking very promising.”
As an example, Hackney cited Hopewell High School, where she noted that “referrals and suspensions for September and October are 75 percent less than these times last year.”
Alternatives to out-of-school suspension, Hackney said, include the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program, as well as enhancing in-school suspensions with the addition of therapeutic and clinical supports to students. The school division has also “expanded alternative education programs at all levels, implemented natural and logical in-school consequences to misconduct, and initiated conversations around implementation of a community service and restorative justice component to our student discipline agenda.”
“We are unified and committed to using out-of-school suspension only as a last resort, so that we can maintain the continuity and integrity of instruction for our students,” Hackney said.
The new report draws particular attention to three areas of concern statewide:
• Younger students generally incur more suspensions. The largest number of suspensions were issued to ninth-graders, amounting to about 16 percent of all short-term suspensions and almost three times the number issued to 12th-graders. Middle school grades overall accounted for 42 percent of all suspensions compared with 34 percent in grades pre-K through 6 and 23 percent in high school.
• Large disparities persist in the suspension rates for students of different races. According to the report, the overall suspension rate in 2015 for African-American students was nearly four times the rate for white and Hispanic students – 12.9 percent for African-American students vs. 3.4 percent for white and Hispanic students.
• Students with disabilities were also suspended at disproportionate rates – 11.0 percent, compared with a rate of 4.7 percent for students without disabilities.
In combination, these disparities add up to huge differences: The student group with the highest suspension rate, African-American males with disabilities, was almost 20 times more likely to be suspended than the least-suspended group, white female students without disabilities.
The consequences of high numbers of suspensions fall on both students and communities, the report notes. “When children are suspended from school in Virginia, they are more likely to experience academic failure, drop out of school, have substance abuse issues, have mental health needs, and become involved in the justice system. ... Exclusion can also have harsh effects on students’ basic care and safety: a suspended student may be alone and/or unsupervised during the day, and may also experience hunger and poor nutrition if they rely on school lunch and breakfast for meals. Schools with high suspension rates generally have poor school climate ratings, as well as lower test scores and graduation rates.”
Aside from Petersburg and Hopewell, no other school division in the Tri-Cities had double-digit suspension rates. Chesterfield County’s short-term suspension rate of 5.4 percent ranked 73rd statewide, Colonial Heights’ rate of 5.2 percent ranked 77th, Dinwiddie County’s 6.9 percent rate ranked 47th and Prince George County’s rate of 5.9 percent ranked 62nd.
The full “Suspended Progress 2017” report from the Legal Aid Justice Center is available online at www.justice4all.org/suspension.