A new nationwide study of high school disciplinary practices shows that in the two years since "zero tolerance" policies were popularized in the wake of a rash of mass killings at schools, black students at the schools surveyed have been expelled or suspended at a rate that is disproportionate to their numbers.
In the survey of 10 mostly large school districts geographically scattered around the country, African American students were found to have received proportionately more expulsions and suspensions. In some cases, they were removed from school three to five times more frequently than white students.
In Phoenix, blacks made up only 4 percent of the high school student population but received 21 percent of the expulsions or suspensions, compared with white students, who constituted 74 percent of the enrollment and received 18 percent of the expulsions or suspensions. In San Francisco, blacks constituted 16 percent of the enrollment but accounted for 52 percent of the removals from school on disciplinary grounds.
The report did not include figures for disciplinary actions against Hispanic or other minority students.
The study by the Applied Research Center of Oakland, Calif., while encompassing a relatively small sample of school districts, is considered significant because it was the first one conducted since schools began implementing get-tough policies providing for automatic expulsion for aggressive behavior and other security violations that before the outbreak of school shootings would typically have resulted in reprimands or punishments such as after-school detention.
National figures on school discipline have generally been sketchy or outdated, with the U.S. Department of Education's most recent data on race and discipline dating to 1994. The data released this week by the Applied Research Center cover either the 1998-99 school year or the previous school year, both of which came after zero tolerance started to become a standard policy in school districts throughout the country.
The Applied Research Center is an independent, nonprofit national education policy institute that focuses on issues of race and social change. In the past year, it has released studies on the racial disparities associated with high school exit examinations and standardized tests for prospective teachers.
Terry Keleher, program director, said the new expulsion figures are part of a larger survey scheduled to be completed in February. He said the center was releasing the figures for the first 10 school districts now because of the national debate sparked by an incident in Decatur, Ill., in which six black high school students were expelled after brawling with other students in the bleachers during a football game in September.
Jesse L. Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, who brought national attention to Decatur by staging a series of protests there last month, said today the new study vindicates his position that zero-tolerance policies are "arbitrary and capricious" and have resulted in wide racial disparities in the disciplining of white and black students.
"The figures are astounding," said Jackson, who was arraigned in Decatur today on misdemeanor charges of trespassing and contributing to the delinquency of a minor stemming from his protests. "Increasingly, school districts are choosing penal remedies over educational remedies when it comes to disciplining students. The reasons for these glaring disparities must also be explored."
Keleher said the study's preliminary figures "seem to reinforce what we have been hearing anecdotally--that when white students get in trouble they get the benefit of the doubt, whereas black students are presumed guilty."
He cited a case in which he said a black student in Providence, R.I., when asked by his teacher to help get a computer disk unjammed, pulled out a small folding pocket knife to aid him and subsequently was expelled. In contrast, Keleher said, a white student in Danville, Vt., who was found with a rifle in school was not expelled or suspended after he explained that it was the hunting season.
Keleher said the problem with trying to document a trend in such racial disparities is that many school districts do not keep disciplinary data based on race or that, if they do, there are wide variations in how the data are collected. To counter that shortcoming, the center selected for its final report 20 cities in which community organizations are active in combing through disciplinary records for racial inequities.
"We feel there has to be better reporting on this kind of thing, and it is the schools' responsibility to do it," Keleher said.
During a visit to Washington last week, Jackson met with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley and was assured that the department will explore whether minority students are being disciplined more harshly than others under the zero-tolerance policies. In a statement, Riley said the administration has proposed requiring that school districts have "sound and equitable discipline policies" or risk losing federal money.
In addition, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission agreed to examine whether such policies tend to disproportionately affect minority students. Chairman Mary Frances Berry has said that the commission would not try to decide the fate of the six expelled Decatur students, but rather would examine whether there are civil rights problems with zero-tolerance policies.
"School administrators who have to enforce discipline may want a one-size-fits-all policy," Berry said. "But on the other hand, one size doesn't always fit all."
Opponents of zero tolerance, which in the wake of school shootings was brought on partly by school administrators' fears of lawsuits resulting from disciplinary policies based on discretion in the imposition of punishment, maintain that the simplest exuberant behavior by students--and sometimes even minor infractions that are unrelated to violence--have led to expulsions.
However, zero-tolerance advocates say that a hard-line, uniform approach to punishment is necessary to maintain an atmosphere of discipline in schools that is forceful enough to preclude the possibility of a student daring to bring a weapon to the classroom.
Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, contended that zero tolerance is actually more fair to students because it removes from administrators the choice of levying different punishments to students of different races, sexes or ethnic origins.
Tirozzi said he supports "some level of discretion" in punishing many offenses, but he called violent acts and the possession of guns or knives "clear incidences" in which zero tolerance is justified.
"Some people may call it a Pavlovian or knee-jerk response, but the federal government has said, 'If you want federal money, you must expel a student for a year if he brings a gun,' " Tirozzi said. "One reason so many principals like it is that it takes them off the hook in making decisions about a kid who is white, black or whatever."
Tirozzi said discipline issues are also far different today from what they were years ago, and he noted that most of the mass shootings in schools have occurred in suburban or rural communities with mostly white school enrollments.
"Before, if shootings happened in urban schools, people [in suburban communities] said it could never happen in their schools. There's been a rude awakening. Parents have become more diligent and have asked for zero tolerance," he said.
In the 10 schools surveyed by an Applied Research Center study, blacks were more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites.
School location Percentage black Percentage white
Enrolled 18% 37%
Expelled/Suspended 36 18
Enrolled 55 13
Expelled/Suspended 70 9
Enrolled 53 10
Expelled/Suspended 63 8
Enrolled 21 24
Expelled/Suspended 42 15
Enrolled 58 36
Expelled/Suspended 68 15
Enrolled 14 11
Expelled/Suspended 30 8
Enrolled 4 74
Expelled/Suspended 21 18
Providence, R. I.
Enrolled 23 21
Expelled/Suspended 39 13
Enrolled 78 20
Expelled/Suspended 90 9
Enrolled 16 12
Expelled/Suspended 52 10