Disproportionate suspensions within Vt. school district prompt questions about discipline and support

New data released by the Essex Westford School District shows that some groups of students were suspended at disproportionately high rates.
Published: Oct. 20, 2022 at 6:57 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - New data released by the Essex Westford School District shows that some groups of students were suspended at disproportionately high rates.

The data shows for one year, Black students and students on individualized education plans were suspended at higher rates relative to their population than other students. The report has school officials looking at the causes and solutions for the imbalance and looking more deeply at suspensions and exclusionary discipline as a whole.

There are 4,000 students in the Essex Westford School District. In 2019-2020, there were 110 suspensions both in school and out. Of those suspensions, 10% of students suspended were Black, even though they make up roughly 5% of the school population. Roughly 40% of the students suspended were on individualized education plans, also known as IEPs, and those students make up 20% of the school population.

There were 41 suspensions for the hybrid 2020-2021 school year, where the percentage of Black students suspended dropped to less than 1%. The percentage of students suspended with IEPs remained consistent.

“When a group of people based on an identity-feature experience something inequitably, it is harmful to source the issue in that group of people. And one of our goals is to help the school district recognize the source of those issues within the system instead of in a group of people,” said the district’s Erin Maguire.

Maguire says the district is looking at systemic changes that will reduce overall suspensions and eliminate uneven outcomes. She says students shouldn’t be suspended for failing to comply with classroom expectations, but rather if there are situations where the safety of others is at risk. She says if students get to that point, it’s usually after a buildup provoked by others or from systemic inequities.

“We’re working toward restorative practices to specifically target this area of focus in reduction of suspension and also transforming how we support students learning through their mistakes,” said Maguire. “Generally, suspension is just one measure of how we handle a behavior that is considered outside of expectations. We’re also trying to look at our expectations.”

Rates of suspension disproportionately impacting specific groups have been well documented in other districts and statewide for years.

For example, an April report from the Vermont Early Childhood Data and Policy Center shows that historically marginalized students make up an average of 82 percent of suspensions in children ages five through eight statewide.

Recent legislation prohibits Vermonters under the age of eight from getting suspended.

University of Vermont Economics professor Stephanie Seguino has spent time on the Burlington School Board focusing on suspension inequities. As schools look to move away from suspensions, she says it’s possible for a school system to do so if staff receive sufficient training and are trauma-informed. “Many kids who are struggling in school, in terms of their behavior, have stuff going on at home or they live in a social environment that is discriminatory -- that causes trauma and stress and causes them to be dysregulated. And I think the major point is, rather than trying to exclude a child because of their behavior, is to understand what happened to them,” said Seguino.

The Vermont Early Childhood Data and Policy Center adds that schools require funding from the state for family mental health and other support consultation to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline. The organization also notes they hear from the early childhood field that the increasing number of students struggling with mental and behavioral problems and a shortage of school staff “...lead to a challenging state to fully eliminate exclusionary practices...”

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont NEA, agrees that in addition to taking steps to understand why students might be acting out, it’s also important for educators to have access to resources. “It’s so important that we have adequate school personnel, particularly with counselors and mental health workers, who can provide those interventions for students who are having a really rough time, and we need to make sure that those resources are available,” said Tinney.

And on a statewide level, a Task Force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments released their recommendations in March, many of which focus on restorative practices. It also recommends the state require schools with high suspension rates or discipline gaps to review and address their policies. Going forward, the secretary of education will submit a report to lawmakers tracking suspensions and expulsions in Vermont public schools yearly.

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