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Minority students are punished more than whites, US reports. Is it racism?

Black students are more than three times more likely to be suspended from school than white kids, a Department of Education report finds. Secretary Arne Duncan calls it a violation of civil rights.

By Staff writer / March 6, 2012



ATLANTA

The disproportionately high rate at which black students are suspended from school represents a violation of a civil right inherent in the “American promise” of equal education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

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Secretary Duncan was speaking after the Department of Education published a new report that found that black students, whether poor or wealthy, are more than three times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white kids in US schools.

“The sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities, even within the same school," Secretary Duncan said ahead of the announcement of the report at Howard University in Washington.

But racism is not the only possible explanation for the contrast between the discipline meted out to black and white student, say some teacher and parent groups, who add that other factors could also lead to such a disparity.

The Civil Rights Data Collection – contains the reported suspension numbers from 72,000 schools, and no analysis. It looked at a number of potentially related factors, including teacher pay and course offerings at the schools.

But as debate rages over whom, or what, to blame for the high punishment rates for black students, especially boys, the report feeds into a growing body of academic work suggesting that the widening use of suspension for routine or minor infractions, including profanity and dress-code violations, not only undermines student achievement, but carries broader societal costs.

“What this data points out is that schools have a choice, that they can say, ‘It’s tough for us, the topic of race is daunting and awkward for us, but we ought to do something,’ ” says Russ Skiba, an educational psychologist at Indiana University, in Bloomington. “By just laying this data out there, DOE is taking a leadership position on this by getting beyond the post-racial myth,” the mistaken assumption that the US has put racism in its past.

Among several findings in a report that purports to reveal “long-hidden data” about expulsions, the Civil Rights Data Collection said black and Hispanic students make up 70 percent of students referred by school officials to law enforcement. It also gave run-downs of suspension data in some of the nation's largest school districts, most of which told a similar story to Wake County, N.C., where whites make up 57 percent of the population and received 25 percent of suspensions, while blacks make up 24 percent of the student body and received 57 percent of suspensions.

One thing experts do agree on is that the causes for the discrepancies are complex. Some urban schools with the highest suspension and expulsion rates also have high populations of poor black students, a higher-than-average percentage of whom come from single parent families. Other studies have shown that children from such homes are more prone to disciplinary problems.

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