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‘Underlying behavior’ key in remedying school suspensions disparity, lawmaker says

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- A recently released report found black students in Virginia are being suspended at an alarming rate.

Several years after State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) requested that school divisions in the Commonwealth keep suspension data to see if there are disparities when it comes to who is getting suspended, she said the numbers continue to concern her.

Although Emanuel Harris' son has never been suspended at school, the Henrico parent said he still worries he could be.

"The reason it bothers me, and this is going to be a very blunt answer, it could be him any day," Harris said.

Emanuel Harris

Emanuel Harris

And, new suspension numbers from the 2016-2017 school year released by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) seem to reinforce his concerns.

"That statistic doesn't shock me at all," Harris said.

The LAJC found large disparities in many school districts between the percentage of black students who received short-term suspensions, and the percentage of white students, as well as the percentage of students with disabilities suspended, and those without.

It also determined that the vast majority of students who are suspended are suspended for behavioral offenses, like having a cell phone, minor insubordination, and disrespect.

Racial disparities in school suspensions

Racial disparities in school suspensions

"A lot of these offenses is not because somebody is doing things so terribly or because one race is so much worse than the other, discretion is often biased and prejudiced," Harris said.

Numbers compiled by the LAJC from Chesterfield, Henrico and the City of Richmond show the percentage of black students suspended at least once is much higher than their white peers, and the disparity is also high between students with disabilities and without.

School suspensions involving students with disabilities

School suspensions involving students with disabilities

We showed the numbers to McClellan,  who said the General Assembly did enact legislation that took effect this July aimed at reducing the disparities, including limiting suspensions for pre-k to three-year-olds and limiting the amount of time someone can be suspended, but she said more work needs to be done.

Hipolit and McClellan.

Hipolit and McClellan.

"Some of the underlying behaviors are not necessarily kids being bad, but kids being bad because there is an underlying issue, and given that so many of these suspensions are for minor behavioral issues, I think we can make a lot of progress by addressing the underlying behavior and not putting these kids out of school," McClellan said.

CBS 6 learned from the Virginia Department of Education that 64 school divisions are now implementing interventions and practices that provide alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, while improving discipline and safety in schools. They said it has resulted in decreases in office referrals, suspensions and expulsions in participating schools.