Despite state mandate to keep students in class, some schools continue to have high suspension rates

The legislative mandate was simple – keep kids in school if at all possible, suspension and expulsion having been identified as a point of entry for the school-to-prison pipeline.

Passed in 2003, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act endorsed a wide variety of measures to reduce rates of juvenile incarceration. One such measure was support for in-school programs that reward students for good behavior rather than simply punishing them for acting out. It identified the state’s higher than average suspension and expulsion rates as a cause for concern.

But an examination of state records by The Lens shows that this decree hasn’t had the outcome legislators intended, at least not in New Orleans. In the nearly seven years since the law was passed, the out-of- school suspension rates – as high as 60 percent at some New Orleans schools – have remained largely unchanged.

Click here for a related story about the use of seclusion rooms at one New Orleans charter school.

Indeed, at Sojourner Truth Academy, the school with the highest rate in the city in the 2009-2010 school year, out-of-school suspensions have actually crept up in recent years. Students at Walter Cohen High School fare little better – the recent rate for that school was 47 percent. John McDonogh Senior High School is now at 45 percent.

Few educators deny that disruptive behavior had pushed some New Orleans public schools to the verge of anarchy and that even at more manageable levels, it can impair the learning opportunities for better behaved children.

But the persistence of high suspension rates points not only to the failure of the state’s push to incentivize good behavior, it has renewed questions that critics and proponents of high push-out rates have debated for years: at what point does the disruptiveness of classroom troublemakers outweigh the value of trying to keep them in school? And just what does a student have to do be labeled a troublemaker?

While earlier studies have broken down suspension rates by school district, The Lens has classified this data by individual New Orleans schools. And we’ve tracked data back to 2002, so readers can see how rates have changed – if they have – since the state law was passed.  We’ve also obtained copies of these schools’ discipline policies, to show links between high rates and a school’s behavioral expectations:

Click here for an Excel spreadsheet with a complete list of schools, and their suspension rates from 2002 through last year. 

Of the 78 schools that gave us their discipline policies, nearly 90 percent claim to have implemented rewards programs for good behavior. Sojourner Truth uses a Truth Bucks incentive program, in which kids get points for arriving on time, excelling academically, and the like. Students with lots of points become eligible for field trips and other rewards. Administrators at the school did not return calls seeking to understand why the school’s suspension rate was so high.

Walter Cohen and John McDonogh adhere to the Recovery School District’s uniform code of conduct, which offers incentives for good behavior and also embraces strategies associated with the philosophy of “restorative justice.” Students, for example, may be required to meet with those he or she has harmed and work out a means of redress. In addition students sign behavior contracts, with clear expectations.

So why are their rates so high?

Different groups have different opinions. Wayne Sailor, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, says the value of positive behavior support has been proven time and again. The problem, he says, is that some schools pay lip service to the idea, but don’t put it into practice.

“Positive behavior interventions and support (PBIS) has a national database of impressive significance in reducing rates of office disciplinary referrals (ODRs), including suspensions both in-school and out-of-school,” Sailor wrote in an email to The Lens. “I suspect that if ODRs are not substantially decreasing then the problem lies in implementation of PBIS with procedural integrity (i.e., fidelity).”

Sailor said New Orleans’ uniquely complex administrative structure – with a majority of charter schools in addition to those run directly by the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board – might explain inconsistencies in how positive behavior programs are being implemented.

State monitoring of the programs has indeed been lax. According to findings from a 2008 Department of Education internal audit: “Management has not implemented a comprehensive plan to monitor and evaluate PBS adequately. Instead, partial monitoring is performed sporadically.”

During the period examined in DOE audit, the state largely used third parties, such as Louisiana State University’s positive behavior support training and resources program, to gauge school participation. After the audit found that only 25 percent of schools that claimed to have used the program actually did so, the state agreed to get more active in the project, and to hold third parties like LSU to stricter reporting standards.

A state spokeswoman said Friday that since the audit, the Education Department has taken over the bulk of monitoring. In addition to other measures, the department does its own analysis of suspension and expulsion rates to determine if the programs have been working in each region. It also now makes on-site visits to schools to see the programs in action.

Another factor in high suspension and expulsion rates is the myriad disciplinary rules followed by New Orleans schools. A 2010 study of New Orleans schools by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and Friends and Families of Incarcerated Children found that schools, particularly RSD schools, suspended kids regularly for minor offenses.

While 42 percent of suspensions were for “disruptive or disrespectful” behavior, 12 percent were for being late to class or school. “Categories like disruptive behavior or willful disobedience are very broad and vague,” the study said.

Schools in The Lens survey that incentivize good behavior, also punish minor infractions, such as repeated dress-code violations, with suspension. In more than 70 percent of schools that practice positive behavior support, dress code infractions lead to demerits or detentions, which if chronic, can lead to suspension, in or out of school. In two other schools, Sojourner Truth and Andrew Wilson Charter School, dress code violations lead to students being sent home for the day – which still equates to less time spent learning. Still other schools punish big for other nuances of non-compliance. New Orleans College Prep’s gamut of rules requires students to maintain eye contact with the teacher and forbids profanity and failure to hold a door open for the person next in line.

School leaders say refusing to tolerate even small infractions sets a no-nonsense tone for students from the get-go.

“We have high expectations for our children to achieve at the highest levels,” Ben Kleban, New Orleans College Preparatory School principal and chief executive officer, said in an emailed statement. “Strict and consistent consequences for misbehavior, combined with extensive positive incentives and rewards, help children learn the limits of what’s acceptable in an environment of higher learning and how to be most successful in the classroom – ultimately preparing them for college.”

Strict discipline is not unique to New Orleans. Billionaire investor George Soros’s Open Society Institute, which also partially funds The Lens, has partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit aimed at ending harsh discipline in Baltimore public schools.

The suspension rate has been reduced to 8 percent but there is still work to be done, said Kiera Edwards, an OSI program associate for education and youth development. Baltimore school leaders, like those in New Orleans, don’t take kindly to uniform violations: “One of the biggest things that we’re working on with our system is the uniform policy,” she said.  “Teachers are allowed to give a demerit or detention for things like dress code, which can eventually lead to a high number of suspensions.”

OSI, like many groups concerned by high suspension and expulsion rates, is enthusiastic about programs built around positive behavior support.

But skeptics caution that it’s not the answer for every child; indeed, no one-size-fits-all discipline policy can be expected to work across the board.

“I don’t think there is any one system or methodology that is going to be a silver bullet – there’s so many different factors involved,” says Lee Barrios, a former St. Tammany Parish teacher who is running for a District 1 seat this fall on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “PBS may work in one situation for one child, but not in every case…so many things can affect a child’s behavior.”

No matter what the reason for high rates, what’s particularly troubling to educators like Barrios is the 27 schools directly run by or chartered under the RSD in which more than 15 percent of students – about twice the national average – were suspended. Because this group largely consists of the once-academically failing schools that the state seized after Hurricane Katrina, the paradox here is that the students farthest behind in their school work – and thus most in need of staying in class – are often the first to be suspended under strict disciplinary regimes.

In examining discipline efforts, The Lens chose to focus on out of school suspensions, which tend to affect a greater number of students, tend to be left up to the disciplinarian’s discretion, and which lead to kids spending the most time out of school. The out-of-school expulsion rates we encountered for each school were much lower – under 1 percent, for most schools – and we didn’t use data for in school suspensions and in school expulsions because students are physically in school while these are taking place.

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About Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her reporting on charter school transparency and governance. In 2012, she was part of a team that received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for their work following a New Orleans family's recovery after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Edna Karr Secondary School in Algiers, and she obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at (504) 575-8191.

  • Jenna B.

    What is meant by “suspension rate”? Does a 60 percent suspension rate mean that 6 out of 10 students were suspended? Over what time period?

  • Jessica Williams

    Hi Jenna,

    Suspension rate refers to the percentage of students who received out-of-school suspensions during the school year. So in that case, about 6 out of 10 (or 3 out of 5) students were suspended that year. The school year that the 60 percent rate is from is the 2009-2010 year, the latest data that the state has.


  • Nemo Homer

    Ms. Williams:

    Did you inquire how many of the students at the traditional RSD High Schools are already in either the juvenile or adult justice system? (You might be surprised as to how many students are on probation, house arrest, and electronic monitoring.)

    Another factor, which is hidden are the number of students who because of NCLB attend regular classes because of “inclusion” but have medically diagnosed emotional and behavior disorders that may be regulated by prescription medication but do not take the required medication on a daily basis.

    As you can see open enrollment schools which take all kinds of students have all kinds of problems which the RSD has never really addressed nor really admitted because then it would have had to divert money from the pet projects of Vallas and now White!

  • Jeremy

    Mrs. Williams,

    Do you have the actual data sets? The ones you provided in the hyperlink only contain the same percentages included in your graphs, therefore there is no way to validate the data you are reporting.

    For example – 60% of Sojourner Truth students were suspended. Does that mean that 6 out of 10 students were suspended once? Does it mean that a few students were suspended a lot of times?

    Also what number are you using as a denominator? For those schools that are K-8 are you dividing by the whole school population or just the middle or lower school?


  • Jessica Williams


    Thanks so much for your comment. The data that I used came directly from the state.

    To suspension rates from Orleans Parish School Board governed schools and charters from 2005-2010, click here:

    To view RSD suspension rates from the same timeline, click here:

    To view Type 2 New Orleans charter schools, from the same timeline, click here:

    And finally, to view past reports from years beyond 2005, head to

    and click on the year under Archives that you desire, as well as the grouping of schools you want (RSD vs. Orleans Parish) They have suspensions and expulsions going all the way back to 1996.

    To answer your second question – the state does the figuring for you. They list the percentages and the way the schools are broken up. For example, the state treats Lusher Charter School (the elementary, middle, and high school) as one school, but it breaks up KIPP Central City Academy and KIPP Central City Primary. The only thing we did was sort it out highest to lowest, and round all the percentages to the nearest whole number, for convenience.

  • As with Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) restorative practices (of which Restorative Justice is one practice) need to be implemented properly. I am aware of some programs that have the name of Restorative Justice, but are not in practice. Currently, a few Regional PBIS consortium are being introduced to restorative practices by trained practitioners. Follow up trainings and adequate mentoring are necessary for teachers and staff to become skilled. Once the skills are in place, it is like riding a bicycle. You keep getting better.

  • Trina L.

    I would be interested to know the percentages of first and second year teachers at those schools.

  • Bro Keith “X” Hudson

    This magazine forgot to mention that after the storm
    white-folks hi-jacked the school system, brought in Teach For Amerikkka, and discombobulated the school system into the mess it is today. Charters ain’t nothing but another level of governmental assisted that was done, when the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated the school system, and the government gave white-folks money to open up their own schools. This time, they used this “uncle-tom” negroes to avert the attention away from Racism. Using public money to privatize schools.

  • Former teacher

    I think this was pretty sloppily reported. I am not sure if you’ve been inside these schools but the picture you paint is vague, the data the state presents HIGHLY unreliable, and the onus on you to dig a little deeper into the numbers. I have personally worked at 3 of these schools and I can assure there are severe problems with discipline, AND that nothing like 30-60 percent of students are suspended. You need to break down for us what these suspension rates mean, and check the states number with what is actually happening.

    It is hard to make clear the number of ways in which this type of big picture data is completly meanligless when collected straight from the state. To begin with schools (almost ALL schools) are willfully deceptive with their numbers, this begins with attendence. For instance, chronic absenteeism at RSD direct run high schools, means that on many days less than 50% of students on the rolls are actually in the building (usually 20 – 5% absentessism at charter schools depending on the school).

    Additionally many schools have parrallel discipline systems with “in school” suspension, informal suspensions… suspensions pending expulsion, suspend students without reporting it properly to the district… etc. At the same time you can routinely find students, swearing at adults, or selling small amounts of drugs in the classroom or hallways with little or no consequence.

    I agree that suspensions are completely ineffective and even detrimental way of managing student behavior, AND that the school to prison pipeline is a VERY serious dynamic in these schools. However these unreliable suspension figures are not the big worry. If you want to talk about the school to prison pipeline, lets talk about hte frequency with which police officers are called in to deal with an angry/disruptive studetn and or parent.

    The discipline problems at many high schools are labrynthian and opaque. To use top line statistics reported by the state is somewhat akin to using the unofficial casualty figures from the protests in Syria to analyze the specific methods of the security forces. The data is far too unrelaible to generate any type of meaninful analysis beyond the fact that somethign is seriously wrong, but we already knew that…

    I would challenge you to spend a several days visiting some of these schools and try to figure out what the rules are, how many students are in the class compared to the roll, what kind of behaviors are acceptable from class to class. Find out the frequency of behaviors, what kind of behaviors lead to desciplanary consequences… see the wide discrepancy from one class to another (kids on chatting with their friends and on their cellphones create far fewer discipline problems).

    Also be real with yourself and maintain the same expectations for these students behavior that you would for students are your own higschool. I just visited my own highschool a few weeks ago, and realized I had set such low behaivorial goals for my students while I was a teacher that I had already failed them before I ever initiated any discipline procedure.

  • Thank you for bring this issue to light once more… no matter where you collect your data from at the school level(which is almost impossible to receive) or from the state there is an issue with the overuse of zero tolerance policies in our schools. This past legislative session a group of individuals and organizations worked very hard to pass a bill that would help get to the bottom of why students are being removed from the classroom for minor infractions; sadly that bill was vetoed by the governor. Please visit to view the written response to the Governor’s veto. Also, several organizations will be hosting an event on October 4th 6:00-8:30pm at the Treme Center to discuss issues related to the overuse of zero tolerance in our schools. Keep up the good work!