Falling through the cracks

The patterns are not new: black students are more likely to be suspended than white students; boys are more likely to be suspended than girls; students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended than able students. So it wasn’t exactly shocking to find that the students at the intersection of these disparities – disabled black boys – are the most likely to be suspended. But just how much more vulnerable they are – black boys with a disability in the St. Louis region are about 25 times more likely to be suspended than able white girls – should be alarming and force change in the administration of education in this region and state. Indeed, black boys with disabilities at some school were 40, 50, and even over 60 times more likely to be suspended than their white, female, able classmates.

That alarming statistic comes from “Falling Through the Cracks,” a recent collaboration between Forward Through Ferguson, Washington University’s Brown School, and the community. Their report documents patterns in out-of-school suspension taking into consideration race, gender, and disability. Many previous studies of St. Louis schools have looked at each of those traits alone and found them to be associated with increased levels of discipline, but this report for the first time considers all of these factors together.

As the report reveals, our children can’t be simplified to one characteristic. When we fail to look at their experiences holistically, we allow the extreme challenges that some students face go unnoticed. To build thriving learning environments and raise education outcomes for our most vulnerable students, we must take an intentional look at the intersection of race, gender, and ability. The egregious disparities in out-of-school suspension have very real implications, both for the students who get suspended and for the region. Pushing students out of the classroom hampers their education, which in turn damages other life outcomes and their future productivity.

Even when they are not suspended, many students are characterized as special needs or disabled because they may have some behavioral issues or other characteristics that make them difficult to deal with in the classroom. This creates an incentive for teachers and schools to label them, especially black boys, as having deficits. This often removes able but troubled students from regular classrooms and places them into special education situations, which may not be appropriate.

One major problem with forcing change based on such a report is that the region is experiencing disparity fatigue. In recent years, our region has generated countless reports documenting racial disparities in health, employment, wages, home ownership, environmental toxicity. The recent Equity Indicators report, for example, found that white workers were nearly three times more likely than black workers to be employed in high-wage occupations and that white households’ median income is nearly twice that of black households. The region is losing out on billions of dollars in economic activity because of the substantial number of black people who are not thriving on par with their white peers. These and countless other disparities that exist in our region are a burden born primarily by black St. Louisans, children, families, and neighborhoods, but they also hinder the region as a whole from realizing more of its substantial potential. Disparities in education, like those revealed in “Falling Through the Cracks,” feed into all of these downstream inequities.

We agree with the authors of the report that our students deserve systemic change, not just temporary and reactionary solutions, and that is a responsibility that we all must share. We should begin by developing a regional strategy for education equity. Plans like Better Together’s proposal for merging St. Louis and St. Louis County, among its many failures, left our region’s deep educational fragmentation completely unaddressed. There is a great deal of excellent work happening among education researchers and innovators to develop equitable, trauma-informed, anti-bias schools. To expand these efforts will require a more comprehensive strategy coordinated between students, parents, educators, researchers, and policymakers. Whatever disparity fatigue may have set in, we must fight for greater equity in those most crucial spaces where our future is being nurtured – schools and classrooms – and we must devise policies and strategies that keep our most vulnerable students in the schools and classrooms where education happens.

Read the report at https://forwardthroughferguson.org/falling-through-the-cracks/.

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