Juvenile Justice

Published — March 7, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

New federal statistics reveal harsh discipline for minority students

Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Blacks, Latinos disproportionately punished when compared to whites


Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan unveiled a vast collection of school data Tuesday, calling attention to alarmingly high discipline rates for minority students in comparison to their white counterparts. The trend lines applied to suspensions and expulsions, as well as referrals to law enforcement agencies.

Black and Latino students together represented 42 percent of the population in the data, but were more than 70 percent of those arrested or referred to law enforcement during the 2009-2010 academic year, according to the department’s analysis of statistics from more than 72,000 schools that were submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

The grouping of statistics, last gathered nationally in 2006, is called the Civil Rights Data Collection and it is managed by the department’s Office for Civil Rights. The data is the most recent and largest pool of such information in the federal collection’s history, coming from schools serving 85 percent of all American students.

“The sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities, even within the same school,” Duncan said at an event at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Black students were only 18 percent of the sample of data collected. But they represented 42 percent of students referred to law enforcement; 35 percent of students suspended once; 46 percent of students suspended more than once; and 39 percent of students expelled during the 2009-2010 school year.

Other statistics were also troubling. Blacks, for instance, represented 21 percent of students with disabilities, but were 44 percent of those with disabilities who were subjected to mechanical constraints — such as straps — at school to control them. Hispanic students were put into seclusion more than any other ethnic group. They represented 42 percent of students without disabilities who were subjected to seclusion — isolation — although they were only 24 percent of the students in the sample.

Nationally, Duncan said, the data showed that students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities. “And some of the worst discrepancies are in my hometown, Chicago,” he said. In response to concern in Chicago about this trend, he said, “We’ve worked hard to train our teachers and principals to look for alternatives to suspension and exclusion and restraint.”

The escalation of police referrals and suspensions and expulsions of students, especially minorities, has become a hot topic among educators and civil-rights groups, as the nation struggles to boost graduation and college-attendance rates, especially among minority students. Research shows that the more class time students lose while out on suspension, the less likely they are to develop attachment to studies and end up graduating. Brushes with police, too, have a negative impact on students’ connections to school.

The Obama Administration formed a task force last year to develop and promote discipline methods and counseling techniques that prove successful at improving student behavior.

The Center for Public Integrity looked at California school data for the 2010-11 year recently, and found that schools in Kern County — a majority Latino student region — reported an extraordinarily high rate of student expulsions compared to the California and national average.

Black and Latino students in Kern were disproportionately affected, and, overall, many students were expelled for reasons that included disruption or defiance and obscenity rather than violence.

In Washington, Duncan and the department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Russlyn Ali, cautioned against attributing the findings released Tuesday to any one factor, including the possibility that educators judge minority students more harshly.

“I think this has to do much more with better training and much better professional development,” Duncan said. “When a child comes to you, might be misbehaving, acting up … something is going on in this child’s life that is leading to misbehaving. How do we handle that?”

“You can expel the child, you can call the police, or you can figure out what’s going on in this child’s life,” Duncan said. “This isn’t necessary racist or bad. I think, again, it’s: How do we address those problems?”

Ali said: “It really is about self-analysis, asking these tough questions. Why do these patterns exist in your school, in your district and your state? What can be collectively done to change them?”

Ali said, however, that the department has acted, rather than simply wait for schools to initiate reforms on their own.

Ali’s office reviews complaints about alleged discrimination, and has launched 14 investigations into the possibility that discipline is being meted out more harshly against minority students. Research by lawyers in North Carolina, for example, into the details of discipline showed that black students were punished more harshly for identical violations of cell phone policies than white students.

Duncan said the data described Tuesday also revealed troubling evidence that ethnic minority students are being short-changed on algebra and other courses critical for college and career preparation.

While there are notable exceptions of school districts enrolling minorities in advanced classes, Duncan said, only 65 percent of schools that serve the most black and Latino students offered Algebra II, according to data. That’s compared to 82 percent of the schools that serve relatively low numbers of minority students.

“When folks have access they do pretty darn well,” Duncan said, referring to statistics showing that when minority students are enrolled in Algebra, they pass at about the same rate as white students.

“The fact of the matter right now,” Duncan said, “is there is not equality of opportunity.”

The Department of Education’s analysis also showed that teachers in schools with substantial minority populations were paid on average $2,251 less per year than teachers in low-minority schools within the same districts.

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