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Racial disparities in school discipline are growing, federal data show

Federal data released on April 24, 2018, shows racial disparities in school discipline worsening, with black students facing far greater rates of school arrests than their white counterparts. (Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post)

Black students faced greater rates of suspension, expulsion and arrest than their white classmates, according to federal data released Tuesday, disparities that have widened despite efforts to fix them.

The findings, drawn from the Civil Rights Data Collection, come as Education Secretary Betsy ­DeVos is considering curbing the department’s role in investigating racial disparities in discipline. Those probes reflected efforts by the Obama administration to scrutinize schools with unexplained disparities in their discipline rates.

The Civil Rights Data Collection, which contains detailed information for the 2015-2016 school year on more than 96,000 public schools, offers more evidence that certain young people — including black, Hispanic male and American Indian students — face harsher discipline than their white counterparts.

About 2.7 million suspensions were handed out in the 2015-2016 school year, about 100,000 fewer than two years earlier. But the number of students being referred to law enforcement authorities and arrested on school grounds or at school activities increased. About 291,000 such referrals and arrests occurred in the 2015-2016 school year, an increase of about 5,000 from two years earlier.

Black students accounted for 15 percent of the student body in the 2015-2016 school year but 31 percent of arrests.

Two years earlier, black students accounted for 16 percent of the student body and 27 percent of arrests. The data also shows students with disabilities are far more likely to face suspension or arrests at school. They accounted for 12 percent of enrollment but 28 percent of all arrests and referrals to law enforcement.

A report from the Government Accountability Office released this month had similar findings, concluding black students, boys and students with disabilities were overrepresented in disciplinary action: “These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended,” the GAO report said.

Implicit racial bias causes black boys to be disciplined at school more than whites, federal report finds

Civil rights groups say the data shows the Education Department should do more to ensure students are treated fairly in public schools. The Obama administration in 2014 issued guidance aimed at curbing suspensions and expulsions. It also warned school districts they could be violating civil rights laws if significant and inexplicable racial disparities exist in discipline. In investigations that followed, the Education and Justice departments successfully pressed school districts to adopt policies that led to fewer suspensions.

“The facts are in black and white for all to see: Racism is alive and well in our American school system,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the national office of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group. “This data clearly shows that black students are less safe, more restrained and pushed out of school more than other students. We need to see the Department of Education commit to the vigorous defense of students’ right to be free from discriminatory school discipline.”

The Trump administration is weighing eliminating the Obama-era guidance amid criticism from some educators that it made some schools less safe and from conservatives who say the federal government should have little say in school discipline.

Some even link that guidance to incidents of violence, including the February shooting at a Florida high school — even though the person charged in the shooting had been expelled from high school. DeVos is leading a school safety commission formed after the Parkland, Fla., shooting that will examine whether the guidance should be revoked.

From 2014: New federal civil rights data show persistent racial gaps in discipline, access to advanced coursework

DeVos spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said the secretary is reviewing the school discipline guidance because she believes it does not sufficiently account for the cause of the disparities. The secretary has hosted listening sessions with supporters and opponents of the guidance, including civil rights advocates and teachers who have been assaulted by students.

The data released Tuesday “doesn’t answer the ‘why’ question; for instance, in terms of why black students, students with disabilities, and males are referred to law enforcement at a higher percentage rate than their enrollment figures, or alternatively, why Latino students and female students are referred to law enforcement at a lower percentage rate than their enrollment figures,” Hill said.

“That’s why the secretary, as she reviews all current policy, is focused not just on data, but also on hearing directly from students and educators,” Hill said. “Individual experiences matter. Data plays an important role in policy formulation, but it’s only part of the equation.”

Experts and advocates disagree sharply on the roots of the differences in discipline rates.

“We know from many other studies that there are no discernible differences in the way that black students behave in school” compared with other students, said Kaitlin Banner, an attorney with the Advancement Project. “The disparities come from the way that adults in the school building are responding to the student behavior.”

The GAO report also pointed to racial bias: “Implicit bias — stereotypes or unconscious association about people — on the part of teachers and staff may cause them to judge students’ behaviors differently based on the students’ race and sex.”

Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said the research is not sufficiently conclusive for the federal government to require school districts to change policies that are not discriminatory on their face. He said teachers and administrators have been unfairly blamed for the disparities, whereas he sees the disparities as evidence of other factors, such as students’ socioeconomic status and whether they live in two-parent households.

“What we’re seeing here is huge inequities in American society reflected in these numbers,” Eden said. “It’s not the school as an institution that’s responsible for it.”

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