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Report Finds Glaring Racial Disparities In Allegheny County School Suspensions

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
James Huguley with the Center on Race and Social Problems notes Allegheny County Schools with the highest rates of school suspensions.

Black students in Allegheny County are suspended at more than seven times the rate of their non-black peers. 

Updated Wednesday, August 22 at 5:15 pm.*

And 73 percent of county traditional and charter schools suspend black students at double the rate of non-black students, according to a report compiled by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

The report released this week shows that a discipline disparity is not an issue that’s unique to public schools.

“Even when they don’t suspend a lot of students, in many of these districts when students get suspended, there’s a really strong chance that that’s a black student,” said James Huguley an assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Social Work. “So that’s something we need to work on.”

Hughley is one of the authors of the research report that examined four years of state and local data from 51 traditional and charter schools between 2013 and 2016. Hughley’s study notes the extensive body of research that proves there are negative consequences for the overuse of suspension, including a greater chance of students dropping out and higher chance of being arrested.

Economically, the study estimates that because of the connection between suspensions and dropouts, suspensions cost the region $30 million annually because of, “lost consumer and tax revenue and increased social costs over each (graduating) cohort’s working-age time span.”

Grant Oliphant, the president of the Heinz Endowments which funded the study, said keeping black students out of classrooms by suspending them for minor infractions points to a structurally racist set of behaviors.

“(Black students) are being deprived of the opportunity to engage with the one thing that we absolutely know is the essential pre-condition for success in the world today. And that is the educational experience that prepares them,” he said. “But they are being denied that because of a practice that for some reason seems to say they’re worse than other kids.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools has been criticized in the past for its disproportionate use of out of school suspensions. A 2016 review of the district by the Council of the Great City Schools found that students of color are suspended at disproportionately high rates.

Since that report was released, the district began using progressive discipline techniques including programs that are meant to prevent disruptive behavior. The district is also using restorative justice practices, an approach that focuses on addressing issues on site rather than making a student leave the building.

The Allegheny County-specific report released Tuesday identifies proven models to reverse the trend of disproportionately suspending black students including less punitive responses to minor infractions and a dedicated staff member to reform efforts.

The suspension report also noted that overall suspension rates for all students in the county are above the state average in about one-third of districts.

However, it found that from 2013 to 2016, 41 percent of the county districts reduced overall suspensions. During that period, Penn Hills reduced its suspensions by 78 percent; both Sto-Rox School District and Woodland Hills reduced their rates by 32 percent; Pittsburgh Public Schools reduced it suspensions by 19 percent and East Allegheny reduced its by 21 percent.

Conversely, 12 of the 51 districts increased suspension rates over the time period. Those districts include Propel Schools (a charter system), Duquesne City District, Wilkinsburg and City Charter High School. 

*The text of the story was updated to say "suspended at more than seven times the rate of their non-black peers." The original post said "non-white peers."