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Students suspended at an ‘alarmingly high’ rate in Memphis, report says

More than 40 percent of all black middle and high school students in Memphis were suspended at least once during the 2011-12 school year – an “alarmingly high” rate compared to other districts across the nation, according to a new statistical analysis released Monday by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies.

Despite the troubling data, the district made incremental progress in decreasing its number of suspended students and narrowing the gap between the rate of suspended white and black students, the study’s researchers note.

In 2011-12, the former Memphis City Schools suspended one out of every 10 elementary school students, a 1.5 percent decline from 2009-10. In middle and high schools, almost 38 percent of students were suspended in 2011-12, a 3 percent decline from 2009-10.

While the racial gap in suspensions also narrowed slightly, it remains wide – especially for students who are male, have a disability, and attend a middle or high school. Overall, the analysis shows that black students in Memphis were about three times as likely as white students to be suspended in 2011-12. During the same school year in middle and high school, more than half of black males with disabilities were suspended at least once.

Administrators with Shelby County Schools, which now oversees the former city district under a 2013 merger, were not immediately available Monday to comment on the report.

The analysis was based on federal data reviewed by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, which advocates for children of historically disenfranchised groups. Comparing student suspension rates for every district in the nation, the center identified the former Memphis City Schools among individual districts with the most egregious records. Nationally, it found that American children are losing almost 18 million days of instruction due to suspensions.

“The question we’re asking here is, ‘Are we closing the school discipline gap?’” said Daniel J. Losen, the center’s director and one of the researchers for the project. “For the first time, we can answer that question in a really meaningful way. And the answer is, ‘A lot of school districts are closing the gap in a profound way, but not enough to swing the national numbers.’”

Losen says U.S. educators and educational leaders are legally and morally obligated to address the issue. “We conclude that our nation cannot close the achievement gap if our educators ignore the discipline gap,” he said.

The study comes as the federal government attempts to crack down on disparities between the suspension and expulsion rates of black and white students. The rates have soared in recent years as district-wide “zero tolerance” policies were implemented and removed students from the classroom for infractions such as possession of marijuana or talking back to a teacher.

Studies show that suspensions have a disproportionately negative impact on a student’s academic prospects, since students who aren’t in the classroom are more likely to miss crucial lesson plans.

Teacher biases are another factor in student suspensions, according to research. The suspension rates barely budged when economic data was removed, meaning teachers are as likely to suspend a black student whose parents are low-income as they are a black student whose parents are middle class.

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