Our complaint does not assert a claim of intentional discrimination on the part of Fall River Public Schools. (“Suspensions in Fall River under federal investigation,” Bay State Banner, Dec. 13, 2012).
Instead it challenges the high-frequency use of suspensions as an unsound educational response to student misbehavior. Extensive research shows that even one suspension is associated with a much higher risk for course failure, grade retention, dropping out and juvenile justice involvement. Frequent use of suspensions as a response to a wide range of minor misbehavior is not good for students, regardless of race.
Further, research has established that frequently suspending students is not associated with better test scores. The federal data show that this counter-productive approach is harming students with disabilities and black and Latino students in Fall River far more than white students. But the unsound policies are also harmful to the white students in Fall River.
The Civil Rights argument used in this complaint is based on a sound principle, that when a school’s discipline policies or practices result in huge disparities in harm to children, by race, or disability status, they should replace them with more effective methods of creating safe and productive school environments.
There are better ways to improve student behavior, ones that involve more attention from adults, more support and training for teachers, and these alternatives do not entail so many days of lost instruction. The remedy is to address misbehavior more effectively, so that behavior improves, not to ignore it.
There are also many ways to instill order that also keep communities safer because they reduce the number of unsupervised youth out on the streets during school hours. Therefore the remedy — replacing unsound discipline policies and practices with more effective ones, ones that are effective for all subgroups — will help reduce the disparities, but also produce better academic outcomes and safer schools and communities for all.
Director, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies — The Civil Rights Project at UCLA