N.H. study shows certain groups of students more likely to be kicked out of school

  • CJ French, 15, sits on the front steps of his Manchester home with his backpack on Friday afternoon, Oct. 7, 2016. French now attends a private school in Deerfield after being expelled from a Manchester public school. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • CJ French, 15, sits on the front steps of his Manchester home with his backpack on Friday afternoon, Oct. 7, 2016. French now attends a private school in Deerfield after being expelled from a Manchester public school. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • CJ French, 15, sits on the front steps of his Manchester home with his backpack on Friday afternoon, Oct. 7, 2016. French now attends a private school in Deerfield after being expelled from a Manchester public school. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/8/2016 11:43:40 PM

In his first year of junior high, CJ French missed 86 days of school. He just couldn’t stand to go.

The Manchester teenager had a learning disability, and was often taunted for it – or worse.

“You’re a loser, you’re a retard, you’re stupid,” his mother, Charlene French said, recalling the insults hurled at her son for years while the school’s administration, she said, basically looked the other way.

In frustration, CJ started acting out – sometimes violently. He would hit back when students would go after him, or sometimes just leave a classroom, go out into the hall, and punch a locker.

His outbursts earned him a series of suspensions, and finally, last January, an expulsion.

As she tells their story, French often repeats the same phrase: “I don’t condone what he did. But I understand why he did it.”

Mirroring national trends, certain types of students in New Hampshire are getting kicked out of class at much higher rates.

A recent University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy study looked at statewide data from 2010 to 2014 and found that male students, students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, students of color, students with disabilities, and homeless students were much more likely than their peers to experience exclusionary discipline – discipline that sends kids out of school.

The study also found that certain types of schools – namely, urban schools in Hillsborough County – were much more likely to send kids home. In fact, students attending urban middle and high schools were roughly three times as likely to experience out-of-school suspensions compared with students at non-urban middle and high schools. Not surprisingly, those schools were more diverse and had high poverty rates.

A white female student from a higher-income home without a disability attending a non-urban school has a less than one percent chance of being disciplined by being sent home for five days or longer, according to the study.

In contrast, a male student of color on free and reduced lunch who has a learning disability and attends an urban school has a one in three chance of being kicked out for at least five days or longer in a given school year. If homeless, that student’s chance of being kicked out of school for at least five days a year jumped to more than 50 percent.

And that’s concerning, according to Douglas Gagnon, a Carsey researcher who co-authored the study, because it’s been well established that high rates of exclusionary discipline are correlated with drop-out rates and involvement with the criminal justice system.

“Anytime someone’s circumstances are predictive of how they will fare in school – and school is so highly predictive of how people will fare in life – that makes people perk up,” he said.

An unrelated 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity found that in New Hampshire, the link between the criminal justice system and schools can be even more direct. They named the Granite State fifth in the nation for referrals to law enforcement from school, and found that students of color, and especially students with disabilities, where again disproportionately affected.

The Carsey study did note one way in which New Hampshire statistics were out of sync with the rest of the country – an extremely low rate of expulsions. Only about 0.02 percent of middle and high school students are expelled – about 100 times less than national averages.

But that’s not necessarily anything to celebrate, according to Michelle Wangerin, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s Youth Law Project.

“I think we have a low expulsion rate because we call it suspension,” she said.

Legally, the only difference between an expulsion and a suspension is that suspensions are for a definite period of time – expulsions are indefinite. A child can technically be suspended for the length of a school year and remain enrolled.

Current New Hampshire law also doesn’t allow a child expelled to re-enroll at a public school, Wangerin said. (Legislation under consideration right now could change this.) Often, school boards will offer students the opportunity to simply transfer out to an online charter school — with the understanding that the alternative is expulsion.

Gagnon said there’s no way by just looking at the data to know if Wangerin’s theory is correct. But he noted that New Hampshire did have a relatively high number of long suspensions.

Legal Assistance’s first priority is to see a statute change. A committee of lawmakers is currently studying exclusionary discipline in the K-3 context, and the advocacy center has submitted testimony asking them to them to take a look at the law.

Currently, New Hampshire law allows for three levels of out-of-school exclusion: suspensions lasting ten days or less, long-term suspensions, and expulsions. And while the due process for each type of discipline is different – a short term suspension, for example, isn’t open to appeal to the state board of education – the legal standard isn’t.

To be suspended – for any length of time – or expelled, a student, per state law, must simply have displayed “gross misconduct or neglect or refusal to conform to the reasonable rules of the school.”

“There is no doubt in our mind the problem is the discretion the schools have,” said Wangerin. The Youth Law Project works with students like CJ, who are facing long-term suspensions or expulsions, and in her experience, a lack of guidance in the law results in harsher punishments for kids who are already disadvantaged.

There are extra protections in disciplinary law for students who have disabilities. But those protections don’t kick in, Wangerin notes, unless the school determines that the student’s behavioral problems are a result of that disability.

Legal Assistance would also like to see research-backed school climate approaches like PBIS – Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports – used more widely, and especially in urban schools.

CJ now attends the Longview School in Deerfield, a private school for kids with behavioral and emotional disabilities. There, with more individualized attention, CJ said he’s learning – and not getting into trouble.

“I’ve been a lot better,” he said. “Less kids in the classroom. I get more work done.”

But that, Wangerin concedes, could be hard to write into law.

“When you’re talking about trainings and a culture change, you’re talking about something much deeper than a legislative fix,” Wangerin said.

But even Legal Assistance’s legislative proposal might see not see support from all school officials.

Carl Ladd, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, thinks a less flexible law is a bad idea.

A law that more strictly defines when a child can and can’t be sent home would make it harder handle cases according to their individual merits, he said.

He also defended sending kids home, saying that suspensions were the “discipline of last resort” when other alternatives had failed.

Ladd acknowledged that the disparities in the way discipline is meted out looked problematic.

“I think that on the face of it it doesn’t look very good. But there are always stories behind the numbers. And there’s always another side,” he said.

He argued that exclusionary discipline was a necessary tool in a context in which increasing numbers of children are coming to school with severe behavioral issues, often stemming from trauma.

“In my experience, the teachers and administrators bend over backwards to keep kids in school,” he said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

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