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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.

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The report also suggests that the problems are inherent in how American schools are set up, with the lowest paid and least experienced teachers most often working at poorer, urban schools with more discipline problems. 

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But previous studies have shown that race plays a role in higher suspension rates even when taking into account the other factors, such as poverty and family structure.

One study by Indiana University has suggested that whites more often get suspended for objective behavior issues like smoking in the bathroom, while black kids are more often punished for subjective reasons, including acts of defiance.

At the same time, data suggests that there's little evidence that black children exhibit higher rates of actual deviance than white children. That suggests a cultural causation where a largely white teaching corps may be applying hidden prejudices in discipline, says Professor Skiba. “We've had teachers tell us that there are different forms of white defiance and black defiance, and they're bothered more by black defiance,” he says.

“There is much handwringing from educators about socio-economics and other factors, all of which play some role,” the Washington Post's Robert Pierre wrote recently in reaction to a study on higher punishment rates for blacks in the District of Columbia. “But the more disturbing reason is one that many well-meaning people are loathe to admit: We see them differently. Adults attach to children their views of black men, even when those children are too young to understand that they are anything other than children.”

Such statements underscore research that has found a causal relationship between race and school punishment.

A study in North Carolina showed that black kids were punished more frequently and more harshly than white students for the same offenses. Another Indiana University study, meanwhile, showed that schools that meted out fewer suspensions had higher achievement scores for all groups. And a study in Texas last year found that suspension rates were linked to higher rates of incarceration for minority groups.

“You could have the best intentions in the world for pursuing a practice, but if it's having an adverse impact on one racial group more than another, and evidence suggests that it is, that's what makes it not compliant with civil rights protections, and to continue to do it is discriminatory,” says Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

In releasing the data on Tuesday, the Education Department said its intent is to allow information to help school districts take a hard look at discipline policies and consider their impact on students of different races.

“These new data categories are a powerful tool to aid schools and districts in crafting policy, and can unleash the power of research to advance reform in schools,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali said.

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