Sina-cism: On Chapter 222, suspension numbers alone mean little

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On Aug. 6, 2012, then-Gov. Deval Patrick signed “An Act Relative to Student Access to Educational Services and Exclusion from School,” the state’s first comprehensive effort to reduce public school suspensions.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

The act, known as Chapter 222, took effect on July 1, 2014, so the 2014-15 school year was the first for which any meaningful data could be gathered.

So far, the law appears to have had a positive effect. Suspensions in the 2014-15 academic year were down 20 percent over the year before. Some 10,000 fewer Massachusetts public school students were taken out of school.

Presumably, those students’ continued presence in the classroom conferred some educational benefit upon them, and made it less likely that they would wind up dropping out of school altogether. And with another academic year now drawing to a close, we can soon expect to have a second year of data to analyze.

The fundamental ideas behind Chapter 222 seem sound, and can be summarized in three points:

First, the law encourages teachers and administrators to stop using out-of-school suspensions as a first resort – particularly in cases of non-violent non-criminal misbehavior (72.5 percent of all incidents) – and seeks to develop alternative methods of discipline more likely to engage students. For those who are suspended, provisions must be made for their education.

Second, the law laid out specific rights for students and families, ensuring all parties have a voice. This includes notifying students they are entitled to a hearing before a suspension occurs, and requiring schools to make a reasonable effort to include a parent or guardian in that meeting.

Third, the law imposed abundant reporting and data requirements on schools, thus ensuring greater accountability, and giving state and local education officials – not to mention families, the media and activists – a statistical trove from which to make any number of cases.

The first-year reduction in suspensions – from 3.9 percent to 2.9 percent of all public-school students across the state – is widely viewed as progress. The fact that suspensions declined for all ethnic groups is also seen as a positive sign.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice issued a report on the 2012-13 school year. That report, Not Measuring Up: The State of School Discipline in Massachusetts, found that suspension rates for black and Hispanic students were sharply higher than those for white students. Similarly, suspension rates for poor and special needs students were higher than the rates for students not in those categories.

Several schools in Worcester were among those with higher-than-average suspension rates and stark disparities.

The report argued racial disparities could not be explained by differences in the number or kind of infractions students were committing, and strongly suggested that black, Hispanic, poor and special needs students were routinely assessed greater penalties, including lengthy and harmful out-of-school suspensions, than the middle- and upper-class white kids, to put it bluntly.

Given the enormous variations that exist in school districts, the kinds of behavior young people exhibit, and the bewildering differences in school policies and approaches, it isn’t easy to judge whether such claims are true. Perhaps.

In any case, reducing suspensions is theoretically a social good, regardless of a student’s ethnic and economic background, home life, or genetic makeup, and in spite of what racial or economic disparities may remain.

But there is an enormous caveat. It is a social good only if we are confident that the school such a child is required to attend is in fact providing them with the academic rigor, vocational skills and life lessons they need.

Unfortunately, not all schools are. Chapter 222 has promise, but it is too soon to declare it a success. If this law encourages students to stay in places that fail to meet their needs, or encourages schools to retain dangerous or unfit students simply to satisfy bureaucratic targets, it will serve merely to treat symptoms, leaving the underlying problem unsolved.

Suspensions may fall for a year or two, but what of that?

The real question is whether Massachusetts is providing outstanding academic and vocational education in each of its public schools. Are test scores, graduation rates, employment figures, economic prosperity and human happiness rising or falling?

A second year of data will engender debate, but remember this: If you want to improve education, you need to do so one school, family and student at a time. Passing laws and arguing about the numbers is an echo of reality, not reality itself.

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