Expulsion gap persists in state’s public schools
Expulsions in Connecticut public schools are declining overall, but minority students continue to be kicked out in numbers disproportionate to their representation, new data show.
Black males make up 13 percent of the male student population but account for 26 percent of expulsions. Hispanic females make up 24 percent of the female student population but account for 38 percent of female expulsions. Black females account for 12.8 percent of the female student population but 34.3 percent of female students expelled.
“It is unfortunate but undeniable that the face of expulsion is youth of color,” said Marisa Masolo Halm, an attorney with the Center for Children’s Advocacy, who works primarily to defend the educational rights of children.
And because many of the state’s large city school districts have high minority populations, the disparity is more obvious in the big city schools.
“I don’t have the answer,” Allan Taylor, chairman of the state Board of Education. “Is a societal problem part of it?”
Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell was also reluctant to lay blame, saying it was important for the state to know the “what” behind expulsions even when it doesn’t know the “why.”
“We are really looking for guidance from the board,” Wentzell said.
A student is expelled when he or she is excluded from school for more than 10 consecutive days in a school year. In Connecticut public schools last year, the average expulsion lasted 115 days.
In 2016-17, there were 750 expulsions in the state compared, with 954 in 2012-13.
One-fifth of the expulsions occurred in the state’s neediest school districts, with most in the largest cities: Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk and Stamford. Four out of five students expelled are high school students. Elementary students account for less than 2 percent.
State law requires expulsion hearings when a student is found with drugs or weapons. Those categories account for half of all suspensions.
In most other cases, however, expulsion is a discretionary punishment meted out for fights, theft, disruptive behavior, threatening behavior and policy violations.
Erik Clemons, a state Board of Education member from New Haven, said he’d like to know how many minorities are expelled for exhibiting “threatening behavior.”
“If race is really threaded throughout this conversation, maybe race should be a data point,” Clemons said.
Policy violations accounted for 11 percent of all suspensions in 2016-17 — nearly double the number from two school years ago — said Camera Stokes-Hudson, an associate policy fellow for Connecticut Voices For Children, a New Haven-based advocacy group.
“We need to dig deeper to understand how permissible policy violation expulsions are occurring,” Stokes-Hudson said. “And who it’s impacting.”
Katherine Meyer, another attorney for the Center for Children’s Advocacy, has had many clients affected by expulsion. One, she said, was a Fairfield County high school student expelled last year for having an emotional outburst triggered by a mental health issue.
Instead of getting her immediate help, the 16-year-old was led from the school in handcuffs and then expelled, Meyer said.
“She so wanted to be in school and graduate on time,” and both the student and her mother felt race played a role in the expulsion, Meyer said.
The mom was overwhelmed, Meyer said, and didn’t understand the process or her rights.
“She felt she let the situation get away from her,” Meyer said.
Appealing an expulsion is next to impossible, since an expelled student has no right of appeal to court, Meyer said. Instead, the advocate petitioned for an early readmission, which was granted. The student, a junior, missed only a couple months of school.
“It was a positive result,” Meyer said. “I wish it could have happened earlier.”
Students who are expelled run a greater risk of academic failure, dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system.
In Connecticut, 46 percent of expelled students get homework assignments, 14 percent get tutoring and 23 percent are put into an alternative education setting. Nearly one in 10 gets nothing.
A new state law requires the state Board of Education to develop guidelines for educating expelled students, including the kind of instruction and number of hours to be provided. It is a work in progress.
Beyond providing guidance once students are expelled, Wentzell said, more work needs to be done to prevent expulsions.
“Expulsion is the most extreme use of exclusionary discipline possible,” Wentzell said. “It really is the modern-day equivalent of the Greek’s method of disciplining by ostracizing ... It is the opposite of what we are trying to do.”
In Bridgeport, where expulsions have risen for the past three years to 90 in 2016-17, four schools are in a pilot program to work on restorative justice — the practice of working to repair a wrong rather than simply punish.
Done right, it should lower expulsions, said Kate Rivera, a social justice advocate and former Bridgeport Board of Education member.
Meyer agrees. She does training for Bridgeport administrators in restorative justice practices.
In Shelton, where there were seven expulsions last year, Schools Superintendent Chris Clouet said the number might have been higher if not for a Youth Services Board that helps adjudicate student disciplinary issues.
Clouet called it Shelton’s form of restorative justice.
In New Haven — highlighted by the state as a city that seems to be getting it right — there is restorative justice fueled by a $300,000 grant, said Kermit Carolina, supervisor of youth development and engagement.
All expulsions in the district must go through Carolina. Few make it.
“This is very personal work for me as a black man, as a father to two black boys and someone who has mentored young black boys for over three decades,” Carolina said.
In five years, New Haven has seen its annual school expulsion rate plummet from 86 to 17.
“We provide alternatives” to expulsion, Carolina said. Officials, he added, have to be mindful of poverty, relationships between staff and students and school practices.
“I always ask principals one question,” Carolina said. “How many days does it take to change behavior? We push for 180 days (for expulsions). Do you expect behavior to change in 180 days?”