This week, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report, stating: "In large part because of this new law, nearly 1,700 fewer students were suspended during the 2012-2013 school year than in 2011-2012." It also marked the first time since at least 2004 that the overall number of students with suspensions dropped below 10,000.
The report, Blacklisted: An Update, further notes: On paper, Rhode Island experienced a laudable drop in the total number of suspensions doled out last year. Rhode Island Schools issued 15,971 out-of-school [sic] suspensions in the 2012-2013 school year, representing a dramatic drop from the 21,848 suspensions that had been issued the year before & Yet this drop largely occurred not because Rhode Islands schools made a concerted effort to minimize the use of suspensions in school, but because the General Assembly passed a law making it illegal for any school to give an out-of-school suspension solely because of an attendance-related infraction.
According to the ACLU, Rhode Island schools doled out almost 5,700 suspensions because of absenteeism issues in the 2011-2012 school year.
It is important, especially now when students have more responsibilities in the classroom, to do everything we can to keep kids in school, Representative Diaz said. The old system wasnt working. Getting suspended wasnt a good punishment for students because it was just giving them more time outside of class. We also needed to think about the fact that truancy is sometimes out of students control because of family circumstances or outside forces. At least this way, we are giving more support to our students who are most in need. I am proud to be able to point to this example and say, Legislation can make a difference in the lives of Rhode Islanders.
Although this has been a great leap forward, Representative Diaz said there is still more work to be done. The ACLU report showed there are still disproportionate numbers of suspensions between white and minority students.
The representative referred to a piece of legislation (2014-H 7581) she cosponsors that would direct the commissioner of elementary and secondary education to develop a method to analyze data regarding the imposition of school discipline and its impact on students based on race. Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett) is the primary sponsor of the bill.
Furthermore, the representative believes that with attendance issues no longer a factor, low-risk behavioral infractions could also be dealt with in other ways. Her concerns stem from the thousands of suspensions occurring each year for disorderly conduct or insubordination, which disproportionately affect black and Hispanic students. Currently, more than 60 percent of Rhode Island's students are now suspended for these types of school violations. As with absenteeism, legislative action may be necessary to address the issue of over-suspension for all students.
Were still working to address racial disparities in overall suspensions and attendance rates, especially in our city schools, Representative Diaz said. We need to continue to be creative in how we address problems in education while stamping out racial bias. Many of these behavior issues are also cries for help, and with the right support, Im sure we can find a better way to discipline and teach these students.
Hillary Davis, a policy associate for the ACLU, lauded the General Assembly for its actions in 2012 and alluded to the road ahead: The ACLU of Rhode Island thanks Representative Diaz for her leadership and commends the General Assembly taking swift action to keep Rhode Island's students in the classroom, and to protect them from unduly harsh punishments that do not appropriately fit their offenses. The ACLU of Rhode Island hopes the General Assembly will continue efforts to keep students in school, and restrict the use of suspensions only to those students who pose a risk of injury or serious disruption to other students."
Sen. Juan M. Pichardo (D-Dist. 2, Providence) sponsored the 2012 truancy legislation in the Senate.