STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Why are some Michigan school districts suspending more than half their students?

Renato Genoza

Michigan is on yet another list of dubious distinction. This time, the state has some of the highest rates of school suspensions in the country.  

Arecently released report by UCLA's Center for Civil Rights Remedies looks at state and even district-level data to see where kids are most likely to get suspended. It also takes a look at which kids are suspended most often. Michigan doesn't suspend the most kids overall (that's Florida's achievement), but the state does have the fourth-largest gap in the nation between the number of black kids suspended and the number of white kids disciplined in the same way. 

Michigan districts also have among the highest rates of suspension in the entire country.

There are a few caveats. The data is from school year 2011-2012. And, only districts with more than 1,000 students were compared against each other.

In that comparison, Pontiac schools had the highest rate of suspension for elementary students of anyplace in the nation. More than 30 percent of elementary kids in Pontiac schools were suspended in the 2011-2012 school year.  Also on that list are Macomb County's East Detroit school district, with a suspension rate of just over 20 percent. 

For secondary school students, Michigan comes out on top again. More than half -- 57% -- of all secondary students in Southfield have been suspended. Oak Park schools also suspended more than half their students, with a rate of 52%. Perhaps surprisingly, this rate was a huge improvement as the report's data from the previous year found almost 70% of students were suspended. These districts were also suspending more than half of their students with disabilities. That is a shockingly high rate for those students, given that there are legal protections that should often prevent this kind of punishment.

Only one  of the Michigan districts mentioned in this report responded to requests for comment from State of Opportunity, and they can perhaps provide a road map for how to deal with data like that in the report. 

Devida Colbert has been the Superintendent of Oak Park schools since 2010. Since then, she's been at the helm of a sea change in how the district understands and deals with student behavior. "I was almost devastated to see the numbers," she said. "Students need to be in school."

Colbert says the rate of suspension in Oak Park, already on the way down in the years covered by the report, have dropped even further. She says she thinks the rate of suspension for this school year is about 20%, in line with many more high schools across the nation. Since 2011 Colbert has worked within her district to implement a behavior system at use in many Michigan districtsthat incentives good behavior above punishing disruptive behavior. She's also put more support services in place including a focus on social work and in building strong relationships between students and school staff. As a practical alternative to suspensions, the district has begun to rely on Saturday detentions for punishment.

"There are times when behavior warrants consequences out of school," says Colbert, acknowledging that suspensions are unlikely to disappear in the district. However, Colbert is motivated to continue to continue to implement changes that could help continue to push the numbers down.

The high rates in individual districts and the racial gap for suspensions across the state are troubling. Suspensions are usually an ineffective disciplinary tool. Suspensions often do more to escalate the trouble a child is likely to find themselves in than to change their behavior. Suspending students also does little to make a school safer. (The report did not collect data on expulsions which are often, but not always, reserved for more serious offenses like bringing a weapon or drugs to school.)

It is a gross oversimplification to say that effectivelycontrolling the behavior of kids in school is difficult. Even so, suspension rates this high are a signal of problems much deeper than student behavior. 

6:11 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect a more recent conversation with Oak Park Superintendent Devida Colbert.

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