UVA prof’s study highlights problems with out-of-school suspension

The University of Virginia. Photo:  Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs The University of Virginia. Photo: Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs

Research has shown that school suspensions are linked to higher dropout rates and an increased risk of incarceration, and a new study by UVA education professor Dewey Cornell and the Legal Aid Justice Center brings more bad news: Black male students are suspended for minor infractions at more than twice the rate of white males.

“There are certainly fairness issues,” said Angela Ciolfi, a lawyer with Legal Aid and co-author of the new study, who notes large racial disparities for subjective offenses like classroom disruptions, but not very large disparities for more objective offenses like alcohol and tobacco possession.

But the study contains good news as well: Suspension rates drop dramatically when a school safety approach developed by Cornell in local schools is in place. The study’s main conclusion is auspicious for local schools, according to Cornell, an expert in school violence and bullying, who summed up the study’s primary finding by saying that the use of a “threat assessment model” increases school safety while reducing suspensions.

Suspensions rose sharply in the years after the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School, as schools across the country implemented zero tolerance policies hoping to avert similar tragedies among their own student populations. Following an FBI recommendation that schools develop threat assessment plans, Cornell and colleagues at UVA’s Curry School of Education sought an alternative to the draconian disciplinary approach that has led to the suspension of kindergartners who pointed their fingers like guns.

The research team used local schools as a laboratory to develop a threat assessment model now used in schools across the country, which trains teachers, administrators, and students to recognize actual risks to safety while accounting for the fact that students, and particularly teenagers, can issue empty threats out of anger.

When the threat assessment model is in use, Cornell said, the study found suspensions drop and student success rises, all while maintaining a safer environment.

Ciolfi said she has seen the positive impact of threat assessment in the local schools.

“It really gives schools a way to step back and have a team-based decision that moves us past knee-jerk reactions,” she said. “We are finally, I think, moving on from the failed zero-tolerance model that has told us that we have to remove students from the classroom in order to keep schools safe.”

In most cases, Cornell said, a student who issues a threat has no actual violent intent, and exploring the reasons for the threat can help prevent a problem from escalating while keeping the student in class and his classmates safe.

“We talk with the student, help him calm down, find out how he’s feeling, try to address what the problem or conflict is,” Cornell said. “In most cases, the situation can be resolved. The student apologizes, retracts the threat, and it’s really not a serious concern.”

In those cases in which the student does not calm down or, for any reason, the school’s threat assessment team has misgivings, the evaluation continues. “That might lead to law enforcement involvement,” said Cornell, noting an important facet of successful threat assessment is the understanding that each case is unique.

“You don’t want to overreact to cases that aren’t serious or underreact to those that are serious,” he said.

In 2013, Virginia became the first state in the country to require threat assessment teams in all schools, and Cornell is encouraged by his recent study’s findings, that schools using a threat assessment model had 15 and 25 percent fewer short- and long-term suspensions over schools using zero tolerance.

In Charlottesville and Albemarle, where Cornell’s model was developed, the number of students who are suspended has been dropping rapidly—by nearly 40 percent over the past five years, according to statistics from the Virginia Department of Education. In the first four months of this school year, there were a whopping 70 percent fewer suspensions at Charlottesville High School than the same time period last year, according to Assistant Superintendent James Henderson.

In Albemarle, the suspension rate has long been low, according to Assistant Superintendent Matt Haas. Last year, 448 of 13,200 students were suspended at least once, down from 746 students suspended in the 2008-09 school year. Haas also boasts that the graduation rate for African-American students in Albemarle County is 92 percent, six percentage points above the state average.

Short-term suspensions have dropped steadily in both the city and the county over the past five years. Data from Virginia Department of Education.
Short-term suspensions have dropped steadily in both the city and the county over the past five years. Data from Virginia Department of Education.

But while both Haas and Henderson express confidence that their respective school districts are moving in the right direction when it comes to disciplinary approach and student success, they both also acknowledge the work isn’t done.

“There is still lots of room for improvement,” Henderson said. “We need to determine why those suspensions are occurring not just for one particular culture but for all kids.”


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