Boston charter schools are far more likely than traditional school systems to suspend students, usually for minor infractions such as violating dress codes or being disrespectful, a high-risk disciplinary action that could cause students to disengage from their classes, according to a report released Tuesday.
Of the 10 school systems in Massachusetts with the highest out-of-school suspension rates, all but one were charter schools and nearly all of them were in Boston, according to the report, which examined the rates for the 2012-2013 school year. The report was released by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, a nonpartisan legal organization in Boston.
Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston was by far the most apt to suspend, subjecting nearly 60 percent of its students to out-of-school suspensions during the 2012-2013 school year. City on a Hill Charter School in Boston came in second with a rate of 41percent; followed by the now-closed Spirit of Knowledge Charter School in Worcester with 27 percent, and UP Academy Boston with 26 percent.
Matthew Cregor, a staff attorney with the lawyers’ committee, called the findings startling.
“Given the steps parents take to enroll their children in charter schools, they shouldn’t be fearful of having them pushed out,” said Cregor, who authored the report with Joanna Taylor, a Brandeis University doctoral candidate.
“Our charter schools are given a great degree of flexibility with the purpose of providing high-quality education to students,” he said. “Removing those students from school at these rates does not make good on that promise.”
Charter school leaders defended their use of suspensions, calling it a necessary tool for discipline. Students, they say, are typically suspended for only a day and absorb an important lesson on the seriousness of behaving in school and following rules so they and their classmates can focus on learning.
“Roxbury Prep has been very proud that it has been physically and emotionally safe for students and families for many years,” said Will Austin, chief operating officer at Roxbury Prep, which has a campus in Mission Hill and two in Dorchester. “Our families and students continue to enroll at our school at a high rate, and we have high attendance.”
The findings come amid a national debate about the use of school suspension. The tactic had been gaining popularity over the last decade or so as part of “zero tolerance” policies that schools adopted, taking a hard line on discipline in hopes of maintaining order.
But a growing body of research suggests that students who are suspended repeatedly are more likely to fall behind academically and drop out, prompting a backlash among students, parents, and civil rights advocates.
That debate played out in Massachusetts two years ago when the Legislature passed a law, which went into effect this July, that calls upon districts to refrain from excluding students from class unless they commit egregious acts, such as assaults, drug possession, or bullying.
In response, the lawyers’ committee commissioned the report to establish a baseline on student discipline, and it concluded that many schools suspend students too frequently and need to rethink their approach to discipline.
The report found that 72 percent of the time charter and traditional schools were punishing students with suspensions for nonviolent, noncriminal, or non-drug-related incidents. Those acts can include violating dress codes, being tardy frequently, or cursing.
The report also raised concerns about disparities in disciplining students of different demographics. Disabled students were more likely to be disciplined than non-disabled peers, while black and Latino students were at least three times more likely to be disciplined than white and Asian peers.
About 5 percent of the state’s schools accounted for half of the disciplinary actions in the 2012-2013 school year.
Many charter schools stress a “no-excuse” approach to strict discipline, which they uphold as one of several strategies for high academic achievement. Many of the charter schools with high suspension rates also have among the highest MCAS scores in the state.
State education officials said Tuesday they had not seen the report yet and could not comment on it. But they said they have been taking a look at suspension rates at charter schools and found in most cases that students are staying at the schools regardless.
“If you go into these high-achieving charter schools, the conduct in the classrooms and hallways is very striking — it is a very positive setting with very little of the disruptions you see in other urban schools,” said Jeffrey Wulfson, a state deputy education commissioner.
One strategy to address problems proactively is called restorative justice in which schools bring students together to talk about issues daily, building community and respect.
The Boston school system has been rolling out that strategy at a growing number of schools in recent years. Just over 6 percent of students in the district received out-of-school suspensions in the 2012-2013 school year.
“We want to minimize academic loss as much as possible,” said Samuel DePina, chief of student support. “We want our suspension rates to go as low as possible.”James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.