School Leaders: Disabled, Minority Students’ Suspension Rates Still a Concern

Data doesn’t lie.

That’s what Thomas Reed, chairman of the Loudoun School Board’s discipline committee, told his colleagues as they digested the latest report on the district’s suspension rates.

The good news is the 76,000-student school system is doling out significantly fewer suspensions than five years ago. But the rate at which minority students and students with disabilities are suspended still hasn’t budged.

Special education students are still three times more likely to be suspended than their general education peers, according to the report. Black students are two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended, and Hispanic students are suspended one-and-a-half times more often than the rest of their peers. The rates are similar at the national level.

“This is still an issue we’re dealing with,” Ryan Tyler, the district’s director of research, told board members. “It is an issue the nation is dealing with, and we’re not seeing an impact yet.”

One of the top campaign priorities among current School Board members was to address a perceived zero-tolerance discipline model. During their term, they’ve introduced the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program into every school. It helps educators create plans to prevent poor behavior, particularly for students who would benefit more from counseling than a week out of school.

They are crediting that program with contributing to a five-year decline in total suspensions and expulsions even as enrollment has increased. The district tallied 1,561 suspensions and expulsions during the 2009-2010 school year, down to 715 suspensions and zero expulsions in 2014-2015.

To address the discipline disproportionality rates, Director of School Administration Virginia Patterson said she’s helped develop a scale that ranks levels of aggression and levels of suspension. It is being used as a guide for principals and teachers.

“This will help our school leaders determine what discipline action to use in regards to the students’ actual behavior,” she said.

The school system is increasing professional development and training for teachers related to discipline.

Board members agreed they want to work with principals and teachers to ensure punishments are applied more fairly—they’ve made closing the discipline disproportionality gap a goal by 2020. They also took time at the Dec. 1 meeting to commend each other and staff members for overall progress made so far.

Bill Fox (Leesburg) pointed out that fewer families are appealing discipline decisions. The board heard about 35 appeals in its first year, and zero so far this year.

“What that shows is generally people are more satisfied and feel that the discipline being given out is more fair than in the past,” he said. “There’s been a cultural change as well as some policy changes that have really made that possible.”

Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said at the start of her term four years ago, she heard a lot of complaints about the schools’ discipline model. She called the process to address their concerns rewarding. Specifically, she’s glad policy changes were made to give principals more flexibility to assign punishments on a case-by-case basis, and not just resort to banning students from school.

“Seems to me, that’s been a big part of the significant drop in suspensions,” she said. “I look forward to more reports like this in the future and continuing to work on this.”

Contact Danielle Nadler at