WASHINGTON (AP) — Black students are suspended from school, expelled and referred to law enforcement much more frequently than their white peers and the disparities are growing, according to a federal report released Tuesday.
The report released by the Education Department is likely to add to an already tense national debate about what causes such racial disparities. Civil rights groups believe that racial bias is at play and insist that federal protections are necessary. Some experts counter that forcing schools to adopt milder disciplinary practices makes classrooms unsafe.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering scrapping Obama-era rules that were meant to counter those disparities and urge schools to adopt softer discipline approaches. She met with supporters and opponents of that policy this month.
The data show that while black students represented 15 percent of all enrolled students in 2015-2016, they accounted for 31 percent of children referred to police or arrested. The disparity is 5 percentage points higher than in 2013-14, when such data was last collected. Two years ago, white students made up 49 percent of all students but represented 36 percent of students who were referred to the police.
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There also were disparities in penalties for bad behavior. Black boys represented 8 percent of all enrolled students in 2015-16, but accounted for 25 percent of suspensions and 23 percent of expulsions. Black girls made up 8 percent of all students but accounted for 14 percent of suspensions and 10 percent of expulsions.
By comparison, white boys represented 25 percent of all students and 24 percent of those who got suspended. White girls represented 24 percent of all students and 8 percent of those suspended.
“This should cause alarm for all of us,” said Catherine Lhamon, chairwoman of the Commission on Civil Rights, who previously served as the top civil rights official at the Education Department under the Obama administration. “Students were and are treated in very different ways. The reality is that those students experience discrimination.”
The guidance issued during Lhamon’s tenure instructed schools to move away from harsh punishments and instead favor positive behavior interventions such as counseling. It also told schools to examine their discipline data and fix racial disparities if there are any.
Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, has been calling for scrapping the 2014 guidance. He argues that it has made educators reluctant to punish bad behavior and has led to disorder in classrooms. While he agrees that racial bias does play a role, he said that children who are subjected to poverty and trauma are more likely to act out at school.
“The numbers are the symptom, not the disease. The disease is about ineffective schools, it’s about unequal life circumstances,” Petrilli said. “We’ve got to address the underlying causes of these disparities. Some of them may be racial bias in the way that discipline is doled out, but it’s also differences in student behavior that relate to differences in the challenges groups are facing.”
DeVos hailed the release of the report and urged federal and local education leaders to take note.
“Protecting all students’ civil rights is at the core of the Department’s mission,” she said in a statement.
The report did show that gun violence is still fairly rare in U.S. classrooms, with about 240 schools, or 0.2 percent, reporting at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting. Harassment and bullying, however, were widespread, with some 135,000 allegations reported. Of those complaints, some 41 percent involved sexual harassment, 23 percent had to do with race, 16 percent with sexual orientation, 11 percent with disability and 8 percent with religion.