ACLU urges Providence schools to address racial disparities in discipline

PROVIDENCE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is calling upon Providence school officials to take steps before classes start next month to reverse a “persistently disproportionate use of disciplinary action and suspensions against students of color” in city schools.

In a letter sent this week to acting Superintendent Frances Gallo and the Providence School Board, the ACLU cited its review of the disciplinary data from the 2017-2018 academic year, the latest available, that indicated severe racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions, especially “for relatively minor and often subjective types of ‘misconduct,’ such as insubordination and disrespect.”

The ACLU asked school officials to take four steps to reverse the disparities and the overuse of suspensions:

  • To confirm a suspension is justified under the law, reference in suspension notices the standards in a 2016 law that limited the use of suspension to seriously disruptive behavior.
  • Prohibit vague and open-ended infractions from serving as the grounds for an out-of-school suspension.
  • Bar out-of-school suspensions for elementary students in the absence of evidence that a student’s misconduct creates a clear and present danger to the health or safety of other students or staff.
  • Submit a report to the state Department of Education on corrective actions the Providence schools are taking to address suspension disparities, as required by state law.


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Among the disciplinary disparities the ACLU said it found when it examined the 2017-2018 school data:

  • The range of students most affected by this disparity are black students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • On a percentage basis, black students in those grades were three times as likely to be suspended as their white classmates.

A total of 201 suspensions of students in those early grades was reported, including 46 suspensions for kindergartners and first graders, and the vast majority of suspensions of these vulnerable children were for offenses such as “disorderly conduct” or “use of obscene language.” Suspensions such as these are taking place despite passage of a 2016 law designed to limit their use.

Across all age groups, not only were black students suspended more often, but the average duration of both their suspensions and those of Latino students was 21% longer than the average duration of a suspension meted out to a white student.

Disparities also exist for students with disabilities. While students with individualized education programs composed 15% of the school population, they made up 28% of all suspensions.