Federal officials are investigating racial disparities in school discipline in Anne Arundel County, where the issue has been a longtime concern for African American leaders.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will probe allegations made in a complaint filed by the Anne Arundel branch of the NAACP that African American students are treated unequally in school discipline referrals and suspensions.

The NAACP raised similar issues in a 2004 federal complaint, which led to an improvement plan that addressed academics and discipline in the 76,000-student district. But little progress has been made on discipline, the 2011 complaint says, and in some cases discipline actions involving African Americans have increased.

Jacqueline Boone Allsup, president of the Anne Arundel branch, said she hopes the new federal action, described in a March 29 letter, will produce concrete changes.

“It’s my hope that once the investigation is completed that there will be programs and policies in place that will assure no child will be discriminated against in disciplinary practices, that all children will be treated equally,” she said.

A Washington Post analysis of 14 local school systems showed that Anne Arundel had one of the highest suspension rates for African Americans in the Washington region last school year. Nearly 16 percent of Anne Arundel black students from kindergarten to grade 12 were suspended or expelled, compared to about 6 percent for white and Hispanic students, and about 3 percent for Asian students.

The federal examination in Anne Arundel comes as the Maryland State Board of Education proposes major changes in discipline practices across the state’s 24 school systems. Among its proposals is a measure to require districts to closely track suspension patterns and account for racial gaps and other problems. Corrective actions would be required.

Anne Arundel Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell considers the issue a top concern, said spokesman Bob Mosier, but “it is not an area where the improvement has been as quick or dramatic as he would like.”

Disparities “are clear in the numbers,” Mosier said, “but how do we go about addressing them?” Solutions are complex, he said. “There is no single button you can push to solve this problem,” he said.

The system has created advisory committees, and lately officials are “taking a long, hard look” at subjective offenses, he said.

One question, Mosier said, is: “How are disrespect and insubordination handled, and are there disparities there?” He said the analysis, on a sampling of cases, will “get beyond the what and look at the why.” Results should come in a couple of months, he said.

Meanwhile, Anne Arundel has begun cooperating with federal effort, he said.

The Office for Civil Rights declined to comment on the case. Nationally, about 100 discipline complaints are under investigation. The decision to open a case does not mean civil rights violations have occurred, federal officials said.

The NAACP supports using disciplinary measures when needed, Allsup said, but wants consistency. Parents have complained about African American students drawing longer suspensions for similar infractions, she said.

“One kid will be suspended for 10 days, and for the same offense, the other kid will be suspended for three,” she said.

Carl O. Snowden, a Maryland NAACP officer involved in the case and director of the state attorney general’s office for civil rights, said change will take a concerted effort from educators, parents and elected officials in both the county and its school system.

Snowden said unequal treatment was a concern as he raised his children in Anne Arundel. “My grandchildren will still be faced with this unless we do something about it now,” he said.

The NAACP complaint said that African Americans represented 22 percent of students in Anne Arundel but accounted for nearly 37 percent of discipline referrals in 2004. In the four years that followed, the percentage was higher — from 38 to 39 percent, the complaint said.

African American students accounted for 41 to 44 percent of suspensions during those years and in 2007 made up 49 percent of expulsions, the complaint said. Expulsions fell sharply when the school system changed disciplinary classifications, the complaint said, but problems persist.

“Non- expelled students now get long-term suspensions and are warehoused in alternative programs without rigorous academic or behavioral modification interventions” to help get them back on course, the complaint said.

Lewis Bracy, an NAACP member who signed the 2004 document, contends the government is part of the solution — which should include hiring more African American teachers — but that discipline issues are often rooted in problems at home.

“My position has always been that we expect too much from the school system, when the basic work needs to be done at home,” Bracy said.

Anne Arundel school board member Eugene Peterson said that the county has moved away from zero tolerance policies that automatically suspend or expel students for certain offenses, regardless of intent or context.

“The bad news,” he said, is enduring racial disparities. One challenge, he said, has been a lack of resources for such programs as in-school suspension. Overall, he said, “this is something that has not really changed in the 10 years I’ve been on the school board.”