Racial disparity in school discipline

In nine out of California’s ten largest school districts African American and Hispanic students are suspended and expelled at rates far exceeding their numbers, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.
Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

In San Francisco, where African American students compose 11.9 percent of the total enrollment, they accounted for 42.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 60 percent of all expulsions. Hispanic students make up 24.6 percent of the student population in Capistrano School District, yet they received 46.3 percent of out-of-school suspensions and, although there were only five expulsions, all were Hispanic students. [Click here for look at all ten districts].

Nationwide, African American students make up 18 percent of the students in the Civil Rights Data Collection [CRDC] sample, but accounted for 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. The survey included more than 72,000 schools serving about 85 percent of the nation’s kindergarten through twelfth grade students.

“The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.  “It is our collective duty to change that.”

Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali released the data Tuesday afternoon at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. It covered the 2009-10 school year.  The Department had been issuing discipline data every two years, but it was suspended during the George W. Bush administration.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights praised the Department of Education for resuming the data collection and release as the first step toward investigating districts that may be violating federal civil rights law. “Instead of creating equal opportunities for all of our students to thrive, too many schools are still stuck in an educational caste system,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, who pledged to support the Department’s efforts to enforce the law.

The information is especially useful in California, where districts are required to report the number of suspensions and expulsion but don’t have to disaggregate the data. “We know that looking at this data is essential to understanding what’s going on in any specific school district or school site,” said Diana Tate Vermeire, director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California.

Tate Vermeire sees a shift among the public and advocacy organizations to do something about the bias indicated by the data. “There’s never been a concerted effort to look at the issue of over-disciplining students,” she said, “and I think the tide is changing as there is more research tying disproportionate discipline to increased dropout rates and to poor grades.”

California legislators have introduced seven bills this session aimed at providing alternatives – or, what some advocates describe as “common sense” approaches – to dealing with student behavior problems.  Although federal and state law require students to be expelled for specific actions that fall under “zero tolerance” policies, administrators have wide discretion for all other behaviors, and that’s the area the bills address.

California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.
California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.

Under SB 1235 by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), schools that suspend 25 percent or more of their students, “or a numerically significant racial or ethnic subgroup of that enrollment,” during one academic year would have to implement research-backed strategies aimed at changing the behaviors that lead to suspensions.  [Click here for list of all the bills].

Steinberg acknowledged that sometimes schools have to take the most severe action in order to protect students, faculty and staff, but warned that when those punishments are overused for minor infractions they can backfire. “When students are kicked out of school, they lose valuable class time and are more likely to fall behind, drop out and get into even more trouble on the streets.”

So many students are affected in some low-income communities that when the California Endowment asked residents in fourteen neighborhoods what they would change in order to improve the health and education of young people, high levels of harsh school discipline came up in nine of those neighborhoods.

“We know that it’s important to hold kids accountable, but it’s more important to prevent the behavior by teaching conflict resolution and other approaches that are more positive,” said Mary Lou Fulton, senior project manager at the California Endowment.  A pilot program run by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which focuses on making amends or restitution for harm caused to people or the school, and working out conflicts non-violently, has reduced suspensions at Oakland’s Cole Middle School by 87 percent.  The results were so powerful that it’s expanding throughout the district.

The American Psychological Association has been promoting restorative justice for several years, especially an Association task force found no evidence that zero tolerance programs make schools safer or improve the school climate.

District officials need to ask themselves if the approach to school discipline they’re using is getting better result for the students and the schools, said Fulton.  “If it’s not helping students succeed, then why continue to go down this path?  There are so many difficult problems in California education.  This is something that can be solved; we know how to fix it.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *