School Suspension Policies and student safety

Will Flanders and Ameillia Wedward:

Federal intervention in school discipline policy became an issue of increasing importance beginning during the Obama administration. Based on the argument that differences in the rates of discipline for students of different racial groups was evidence of racism, the administration issued a “Dear Colleague” letter informing school districts that they needed to work to reduce gaps in suspensions for those of different racial backgrounds.

A reprieve of sorts occurred during the Trump administration, with the “Dear Colleague” letter eventually being rolled back. But, under President Biden, we are likely to see similar, or even more stringent, federal intervention. What, then,
was the result of previous interventions under Obama? This report seeks to answer that question through the prism of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), which was subject to an inquiry from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division, and eventually entered into an agreement with them to reduce disparate suspension outcomes.

We combine several data sets in this analysis. Data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on suspension rates at the school level is combined with data from a UW-Milwaukee survey of students on how safe they feel in
their school.

Among the key takeaways from this study:

• Suspension Rates Declined in Milwaukee After MPS Agreement. While suspension rates increased in Milwaukee for several years, there was an immediate decline following an agreement between MPS and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Education.

• Reduced Suspension for African American Students Resulted in Lower Reports of Safety. When suspension rates for African American students fell, the share of students reporting that they feel unsafe in their school’s hallways went up.

• Suspension Rates for Other Student Groups Change in a more “normal” manner.
Among all students and Hispanic students, higher suspension rates occur in schools where students report feeling less safe.

• African American Students Suffer the
Most. African American students are heavily concentrated in schools with other African Americans, meaning other African American students bear the brunt of lax discipline practices.
This research has important implications for policy makers at both the state and federal level. It shows there are real-world, negative implications from applying political correctness to school discipline standards. Moreover, students in the group that is ostensibly meant to be helped by relaxed discipline are actually the most likely to be harmed.