Some students still disproportionately suspended in Arlington schools, county says

Some Arlington, Virginia, students continue to be disproportionately suspended compared to their peers, an alarming trend that school leaders say they’re taking steps to address.

Black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities, English language learners and male students were disproportionately suspended in the 2022-23 school year, according to newly released data discussed at a school board work session Tuesday.

There was a 5% drop in Black K-12 student suspensions between 2021-22 and 2022-23, but a 2% increase for Hispanic students. That disproportionality remains for both of those groups, according to Gradis White, director of school climate and culture.

Suspensions among students learning English compared to non-English language learners remains unchanged between the last two school years, the county said, with English learners 1.5 times more likely to be suspended than their non-English language learning peers.

Arlington also reported that despite a 4% drop in suspensions among students with disabilities, those students are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended. Male students are 1.3 times more likely to be suspended than their female counterparts, according to county data, which also indicated a 13% increase in female suspensions since 2018-19.

The data release comes about a year after the school system reported Black, Hispanic and students with disabilities were disproportionately suspended in the 2021-22 school year. Also last October, nearby Fairfax County Public Schools said students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended, according to a review of the special education program there.

One bright spot, according to school system leaders, is a 9% decrease in out-of-school suspensions for Black students and students with disabilities. Suspensions fall into two categories — those that are served outside of school, or those served in school while separated from other students.

“The overall theme I’m seeing, in this short time, is that students just want to be heard,” said Brandi Barnes, dean of students at Wakefield High. “They want to be acknowledged. They want to know that their problem is important to someone.”

Disruptive behavior and attendance were the two most common reasons for in-school suspensions last year, and disruptive behavior and fighting were the two most common reasons for out-of-school suspensions in the 2022-23 school year.

In response to the disproportionate data, school system leaders recommended creating a middle school program for students who need more behavioral support and helping schools monitor monthly discipline data, among other things.

The county also highlighted its recent efforts to address the discipline data, pointing to professional development offered to staff and the creation of positions such as intervention counselors at all secondary schools and substance abuse counselor positions.

“If we don’t make some changes, if we don’t do something different about it, we won’t see anything happen beyond the status quo, and we’ve talked a lot about these issues for many, many years,” Superintendent Francisco Durán said.

For one, at Wakefield, Barnes said school leaders call in-school suspension their “cube room.”

“It’s our refocus, restore and return,” Barnes said. “The big emphasis on the restoration piece, and then the return. We need you to return to the classroom.”

A group of five or six teachers there, Barnes said, have given up planning and lunch time to help work through student behaviors “and any concerns or issues that we do have at the school.”

At Thomas Jefferson Middle, meanwhile, dean of students Tiffini Woody-Pope said some classes participate in “community circles” twice a month, and that’s “done with the goal of developing a classroom community so that students know that they have these other relationships to support them.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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