Tuesday / April 23

The Hidden Inequities in California’s Suspension Rates: Part II

In our previous blog post, we outlined our responses to frequently asked questions when viewing and attempting to interpret the Suspension Rate Indicator data. In this blog post, we illustrate how a fatal flaw in the way the suspension rate is calculated can lead to hidden inequities that harm the most vulnerable students.

The good news is that progress is being made toward achieving equity in school discipline by placing an emphasis on school suspension rates on the dashboard and holding schools accountable for having high and/or disproportionate rates of suspension. However, a principled flaw continues to exist within the calculation.

Does counting a student only once (regardless of suspendable days and/or incidents) contribute to the continuance of inequities in school discipline? Would this not reward an administrator for repeatedly suspending the same challenging student(s) by only having it counted once? Therein lies another loophole for non-believers by allowing them to continue the use of suspensions rather than intervening with other means of correction. Essentially, the few number of students who require the most support on a school’s campus can be repeatedly removed from the learning environment without penalty or having a negative impact on the status of that school’s equity indicator. In fact, a clever administrator can perfectly calculate which students to repeatedly suspend while maintaining a “High” (Green) status on the dashboard.

To go a step further, there is no deterrent for schools to not utilize expulsions. Schools can still maintain a high status with multiple expulsions, as long as the suspensions connected with the expulsions do not exceed the cut scores. This current state of accountability will deter schools from using suspension as a more common means of discipline toward all students. However, the most damaging inequity with the current state of the dashboard is that it gives a site administrator the ability to repeatedly remove the most challenging students from a campus without having to spend the time needed to correct and change their behavior; thus creating life-altering inequities toward the future of those children, while still preserving the school’s “High” status on the state’s equity indicator. The Tale of Two “High” Performing Schools section below will demonstrate how a school can show “High” performance on the equity indicator while having a less than equitable approach to school suspensions.

Dashboard Comparison

The Tale of Two “High” Performing Schools:

Below is an example of the Suspension Rate Indicator five-by-five colored grid for two elementary schools of the same size (600 students) achieving the same performance level, however, looking quite different:

Star Elementary:

●        A Status of 0.3% (the equivalent of 2 suspensions)

●        A Change of +.3% (up from 0% or 0 suspensions from the previous year)

Star Elementary maintains a status of “Very Low” suspension rate .3% (Status), however increasing its suspension rate by +.3% (or +2 suspensions), which is an “Increased” (Change). A Status of “Very Low” and a Change of “Increased” meet on the grid to give a performance level of Green (high performing).

Circle Elementary:

●        A Status of 3.0% (the equivalent of 18 suspensions)

●        A Change of -.3% (down from 3.3% or 20 suspensions from the previous year)

Circle Elementary reduced their “High” suspension rate from 3.3% to “Medium” 3.0% (Status). Their rate decreased by -.3% (or -2 suspensions), which is a “Declined” (Change). A Status of “Medium” and a Change of “Declined” meet on the grid to give a performance level of Green (high performing).

Star Elementary with 2 suspensions and Circle Elementary with 18 both achieved a “High” performance level in the state’s equity indicator. However, Star Elementary’s 2 suspensions reflect only 2 incidents for the entire year. This school uses alternatives to teach and change behavior and has consequences potentially lasting several weeks while keeping the student in the learning environment.

Circle Elementary’s 18 suspensions reflect 85 incidents and over 150 instructional days lost for the students from their suspensions. Compounding these numbers, of the 18 suspensions, 5 of those students were put up for expulsion. Since a suspension counts as one incident, this administrator used suspension to expedite the removal of students off his/her campus and accelerate the expulsion process.

Both schools look identical in the eyes of the state’s suspension rate on the equity indicator, but both couldn’t be further apart in their work towards equity in school discipline. Number of days and incidents should be factored into the formula to prevent schools like Circle Elementary from being regarded as a “High” achieving school with regards to school suspensions.

Additional Resources

Educators who are willing to go above and beyond these inequities when serving students may find using Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit and Building Behavior: The Educator’s Guide to Evidence-Based Initiatives as a great resource to guide believers in equity in school discipline; those willing to advocate beyond cut scores and five-by-five colored tables.


Written by

Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan is an Educational Consultant and an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Fresno State University. She is also an educational consultant working with several school districts and county offices in California on designing and implementing effective behavior systems in schools and districts that work. She currently trains approximately 300 schools on the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Champion Model System. She is the co-author of The PBIS Tier One Handbook. Follow Jessica on Twitter @jess_hannigan. Dr. John Hannigan holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies, Master’s in Educational Leadership, and Doctorate in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno. He is currently in his seventh year as principal of Ronald W. Reagan Elementary in Sanger Unified School District, where under his leadership has earned California State Distinguished School, California Title I Academic Achievement Award for closing the achievement gap by the California Department of Education; a 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 California Honor Roll school by California Business for Educational Excellence; a 10 out of 10 similar school statewide ranking; 2008, 2010, 2012 winner of the Bonner Award for Character Education; 2013 Silver Level Model School recognition, and 2014 and 2015 Gold Level Model School recognition from Fresno County Office of Education for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. He also serves on Dr. Paul Beare’s, Dean of California State University, Fresno, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, Advisory Council. Dr. Hannigan resides in Fresno, California, with his wife Jessica and daughters Rowan and Riley. Follow John on Twitter @JohnHannigan75. John and Jessica are the authors of Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit and Building Behavior.

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