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Urgent need to address racial disparities in school discipline

Racial disparities in school discipline – including suspensions, expulsions and arrests – remain alarmingly high in districts and states across the country.

Racial disparities in school discipline – including suspensions, expulsions and arrests – remain alarmingly high in districts and states across the country, according to Sec. of Education Arne Duncan, who announced the results of the latest Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) on Tuesday (March 6).

The CRDC is a national survey of 72,000 schools. Key findings show:

African-American students are more than three times as likely to be suspended as their white peers.

Over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino.

Students with disabilities are suspended at a rate twice that of students without disabilities.

The data confirms what many civil rights and education advocates have feared. Stark racial disparities across various indicators are hampering educational access and opportunity.

While it applauded U.S. Department of Education on the release of the survey, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) noted its deep alarm about the data.

The data collection for the 2009-10 school year reflects an expanded set of information, including factors such as school-based arrests, referrals to law enforcement and students receiving multiple suspensions. LDF and other civil rights and education advocates have urged inclusion of the reporting categories. They have also asked the Department of Education to collect the data annually from all schools, including all charter schools that receive federal funds.

According to the Department of Education, African-American students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers. African American and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to be forced to repeat a grade, especially in the elementary and middle grades. And fewer schools with high concentrations of minority students had access to either advanced curriculum or reasonably experienced teachers who can prepare them to compete in today’s global economy.

 “We cannot suspend, expel and arrest our way out of our nation’s education problems.  In fact, relying upon exclusionary discipline policies actually fuels academic failure and drives achievement gaps,” said John Payton, LDF’s president and director-counsel. “Indeed, if we are to ever fulfill the promise of quality, inclusive education heralded in Brown v. Board of Education, we must equalize resources and address the policies and practices that are pushing young people out of school.”

The LDF hopes the data serves as a clear call to action for school districts and states with significant racial disparities in areas such as school discipline and resource allocation.

“They should understand that inexplicable racial disparities can be a violation of federal law, whether intentional or not,” said Damon Hewitt, director of LDF’s Education Practice Group. “And this is especially true when a state or school district implements discipline policies that are not supported by sound educational practices.”

LDF is urging the Department of Education to consider the disparities revealed in the Civil Rights Data Collection when determining whether to honor states’ requests for waivers from the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act and whether to award discretionary grants to states and districts under its competitive grant programs.

Noting Congressional efforts to replace the No Child Left Behind Act with a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the LDF said Congress must hold schools, school districts and states accountable for the types of disparities outlined in the survey and also provide support to assist them in addressing high disciplinary rates and disparities, as well as other inequities.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, also applauded the DOE for collecting and releasing the data.

“With this knowledge comes the responsibility for the Department to investigate school districts that may be in violation of federal civil rights law and take appropriate enforcement action,” said Henderson.

“This report paints, in stark terms, how our educational system is failing boys and girls. By showing vast disparities in virtually all dimensions of students’ experiences in schools including discipline, achievement, resources, and support, it reveals a harsh reality of student life for minorities and students with disabilities.”

Eddie Madison, father of three boys in South Central Los Angeles and parent leader at CADRE, a community-based, parent-led organization focused on stopping the pushout crisis in South LA schools, said parents long have known about the unequal discipline practices in our inner city schools.

“Consistent data collection not only gives our stories legitimacy, but also gives the Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights real information to deal with the systemic issues plaguing our students of color in the public school systems across the country,” said Madison.

“We applaud this first step, yet we hope this type of data collection can be done more often and more extensively to ensure our children’s human right to a quality education – no matter where they live,” said Madison.


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