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School suspensions: Does racial bias feed the school-to-prison pipeline?

Rocketing school suspensions may feed the school-to-prison pipeline – and even violate civil rights.

By Staff writer / March 31, 2013

Oakland High School sophomore Barry Williams answers a question from instructor Tiago Robinson during the Manhood Development Program at Oakland High School on March 12 in Oakland, California. This is the cover story in the Apr. 1 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Two students set off fire alarms in the same school district. One of them, an African-American kindergartner, is suspended for five days; the other, a white ninth-grader, is suspended for one day.

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•An African-American high-schooler is suspended for a day for using a cellphone and an iPod in class. In the same school, a white student with a similar disciplinary history gets detention for using headphones.

•Two middle-schoolers push each other; the white student receives a three-day, in-school suspension, while the native American student is arrested and suspended, out of school, for 10 days.

Civil rights groups have been saying for years that school discipline is not meted out fairly, citing examples like these reported last year from around the country by the US Department of Education.

High rates of suspensions and expulsions for certain groups – particularly African-Americans, Hispanics, and those with disabilities – are evident in data gathered nationally by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Data from 72,000 American public schools in the 2009-10 school year, for example, show that while African-Americans make up 18 percent of the students in this large sample, they account for 46 percent of students suspended more than once, 39 percent of students expelled, and 36 percent of students arrested on campus.

White students, by contrast, represent 29 percent of multiple suspensions and 33 percent of expulsions – but 51 percent of the students.

School leaders have to maintain a safe environment for learning, and about 4 in 10 teachers and administrators surveyed recently by Education Week said out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are an effective way to do that. Some expulsions have even been mandated by law, particularly when a student brings a gun to school.

Yet increasingly, "we're seeing suspensions for things that used to be considered typical adolescent behavior and were dealt with in less harsh ways within the school system," says Jim Eichner, managing director of programs for the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group in Washington.

While opinions differ about whether student behavior has become more disruptive or dangerous, the number of suspensions has grown dramatically in recent decades.

In 1976, nearly 1.8 million students were suspended – 4 percent of all public-school students; by 2006, the number of students suspended had nearly doubled to 3.3 million, about 7 percent of all students, according to Department of Education data.

In addition to the suspensions, 102,000 students were expelled – removed from school for the remainder of the year or longer – in 2006.

Nearly two decades of a "zero tolerance" mentality has contributed dramatically to a spike in exclusionary discipline that involves racial disparities, youth and civil rights advocates say. It has led to what they call a "school-to-prison pipeline," and the implications of this unfair, even draconian, disciplinary system are enormous, they say.

National goals to prepare more students for college and careers can't be met if so many students continue to miss out on school, a growing number of educators and lawmakers add – and society will pay down the road for more jobless and incarcerated young people.

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