Racial Gap in School Suspensions Widens

What's more, white students were disciplined most often for easily documented offenses, such as vandalism and use of explicit language, while black students were disproportionately disciplined for offenses that may have required more judgment on the part of the teacher, such as being disrespectful and being loud in class -- suggesting that blacks may be singled out when it comes to more subjective infractions.

Jonathan Brice, Baltimore City Public Schools' executive director of student support, argues that some in-school rule breaking should not result in suspensions. "You need zero tolerance for acts of violence or weapons on campus," he says. "But that's a small microcosm of what goes on in our schools on a daily basis."

Since minimizing out-of-school suspensions for minor offenses in 2004, Brice says, the school district has increased its graduation rate by 20 percent and decreased the dropout rate by almost half.

Although efforts to close the suspension gap are gaining momentum -- in 2010 U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder publicly discussed the issue -- various legislative loopholes and red tape have made both documenting and addressing the widening gap between black and white student suspensions particularly difficult.

The report suggests that government intervention, more transparency and better record keeping by schools will improve discrepancies in discipline rates. Currently, many state agencies and school districts do not release racial breakdowns of their disciplinary records. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act requires all states to make a pledge to collect and examine disciplinary data by race and ethnicity, but the information is not required to be -- and often is not -- released to the public.

"We have to end what I call the 'Pledge of Illusions,' " Losen says. "We have to ask schools and districts their [suspension] rates."

Ultimately, schools also need to examine how effective suspensions really are, he adds, suggesting that when it comes to certain infractions, putting kids out of school seems counterintuitive. "Truancy is one of the leading reasons for suspending kids. What is the deterrent value in suspending truant kids?"