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Suspensions are rising in Ohio schools, with uneven impacts on students

Students in desks watch as a teacher presents at the front of the classroom.
A recently released report shows disparities in Ohio schools' disciplinary practices.

More Ohio students are missing class as a punishment.

Out-of-school suspensions and expulsions rose in every grade level, from Kindergarten to 12th grade between the 2021-2022 school year and the 2022-2023 school year. That’s according to a new report by the Children’s Defense Fund Ohio, a child welfare advocacy nonprofit.

And, these disciplinary practices are disproportionately affecting students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Students from low-income families made up 83% of the state’s out-of-school suspensions, said Kim Eckhart, one of the report’s authors.

Being excluded from class doesn’t just hurt educational outcomes, Eckhart said it can set youth on a path toward the criminal justice system.

When rates of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions rise, you also see kind of that pathway to incarceration,” Eckhart said. “We call that the community to prison pipeline.”

Disciplinary disparities

Ohio has a “zero-tolerance” policy in regard to disruptive and violent behavior in the classroom that dates back to 1998. But, Eckhart said this policy impacts students of different backgrounds differently.

Students of color and students with disabilities faced higher rates of suspensions and expulsions. Eckhart attributes that in part to unconscious bias.

Black male students in Ohio were more than four times more likely to be expelled or suspended than their white counterparts. And the disparity widens among girls. Black female students are six times more likely to face exclusionary discipline than their white counterparts.

A graph shows that Black students in Ohio face disproportionate rates of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
Children's Defense Fund Ohio
Black students in Ohio face disproportionate rates of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

Students with disabilities only made up around 17% of Ohio’s public school population in the school year 2022-2023, yet they represented almost 30% of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

“This really is an equity issue,” Eckhart said.

An ongoing issue

Expulsions and suspensions have been on the rise in Ohio for the last five years, according to the report. Eckhart said the most recent surge in suspensions is an ongoing impact of the loss of in-person instruction during the coronavirus pandemic.

“A lot of students came out of that with increased anxiety and depression and underlying emotional health concerns,” Eckhart said.

The report noted that this issue is inextricably intertwined with the rising rates of chronic absenteeism in the classroom. More than a fourth of Ohio students were considered chronically absent last school year, a 10% increase from the 2018-2019 school year.

Still, Eckhart said there’s been some progress. The passage of the Supporting Alternatives for Fair Education (SAFE) Act in 2018 prohibited out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for non-violent or disruptive behavior in pre-K to third grade. The number of occurrences has decreased from 39,000 in school year 2017-2018 to 12,000 in the last full school year but they haven’t been eliminated entirely.

We haven't given schools the funds that they need to really be able to implement it well,” Eckhart said.

The report’s recommendations

Eckhart said Ohio should work to reduce its exclusionary discipline practices, but she admits it’s not easy. Managing a classroom can be difficult without the ability to remove a student, she said.

“Teachers are expected to uphold these incredibly high academic standards and outcomes,” Eckhart said. “When one student is removed, those other 29 students really have the opportunity to have that positive learning experience and focus on their own instruction.”

A pie chart shows reasons for out-of-school suspensions: 44% disobedience/disruptions, 29% fighting/violence, 8% tobacco, 7% harassment/intimidation, 4% drugs and 8% other.
Children's Defense Fund Ohio
The majority of suspensions and expulsions in Ohio are due to "disruptive" behavior.

But, she said teachers need more options to cope with disruptive behavior. She said many schools would benefit from hiring intervention specialists that can give extra attention to struggling students. Additionally, lower classroom sizes could free up more time to correct inappropriate behavior in individual students.

These solutions would take investment. Expelling a student is often the cheap option, Eckhart said, but she added that school districts need to remember that they are often more than an educational resource for students.

“The schools have really become the hubs in the community that provide a lot of services, and so when you think about excluding a student from school, you might be taking out one of their key meals for the day,” Eckhart said.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.