Virginia schools push students out of school through “widespread, discriminatory overuse” of suspension and expulsion, according to a new report from the Virginia Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program.

The Charlottesville-based nonprofit analyzed data that schools reported to the Virginia Department of Education for the 2014-15 school year. Schools must report the number students who receive either short-term or long-term suspensions and the number of students who are expelled.

Among the findings in the Legal Aid Justice Center’s report, “Suspended Progress”:

  • One-fifth of all suspensions in the state went to students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade;
  • Nonviolent offenses like “disruption,” “defiance” and “disrespect” accounted for the majority of suspensions;
  • Black students and those with disabilities were suspended disproportionately to their peers.

In the Roanoke and New River valleys, two school districts were identified as having either large disparities or high rates of suspensions.

Roanoke schools were among the top 18 school districts in the state with the highest rates of short-term suspensions in each of the past five school years, according to the report. The report showed Roanoke cut the percentage of students who receive short-term suspensions (those that range from one to 10 days) from a high of 14 percent in 2011-12 to 11 percent in 2014-15.

Pulaski County schools were identified in the report as having an “especially large” disparity between the rate at which students with disabilities and students without disabilities received short-term suspensions.

The high numbers of suspensions and expulsions statewide are a concern because they contribute to the “school-to-prison” pipeline, the report’s authors said in a statement.

“Suspension hurts everyone. Suspended students are at a significantly greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Angela Ciolfi, JustChildren’s legal director and co-author of the report. “Worse yet, suspension damages school climate, public safety, and the economy.”

A Roanoke Times article Sunday detailed the efforts Roanoke schools have made toward reducing suspensions. The district says it is trying to reduce the number of suspensions, and says the average suspension length has been cut in half from the end of last year to the present.

Yolanda Conaway-Wood, the district’s executive director for student support services, said she has asked administrators to consider alternatives to suspensions.

“If suspension wasn’t available, if I had no suspension option, what would I do instead?” Conaway-Wood said. “And then I would encourage them to use that ‘instead of’ than that almost traditional go-to in order to address behaviors.”

Next year, the district also plans to introduce a program with components of “restorative justice,” a concept that considers the harm done by a student and how to make amends. The hope is that also will help reduce the number of suspensions in the district.

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