Minority Students Face Harsher Discipline

Are schools disciplining Latino and black students more harshly than white students?

That was the one of the findings of a Council of State Governments study looking at Texas schools back in July. Now, a new report from The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) offers further evidence to support that conclusion.

According to the NEPC, which reviewed statistics from states and the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, suspension rates for Latino students rose from 3 percent to 7 percent from the 1972-73 school year to the 2006-07 school year. During that same period, suspension rates for black students rose from 6 percent to 15 percent, but increased only from 3 percent to 5 percent for white students.

The report also found that 16 percent of Latino male middle school students and 28 percent of black male middle school students are suspended each year, compared to 10 percent of white male middle school students.

However, there was no evidence that students of color misbehave more than black and Latino students, the research showed. In addition, discipline disparities are most common for infractions relating to “judgments calls by adults — talking back of disrespect,” the report says.

Most troubling  are the long-term effects of disciplinary policies, notes the report, which points to the connection between high suspension rates and lower academic achievement. Students who are suspended not only miss instructional time, but are also at a higher risk of dropping out.

In 2007-2008, about 3.25 million students were suspended at least once, in many cases, for nonviolent violations including breaking dress code policies, using inappropriate language and disrupting classrooms.

A key question for education reporters examining this issue is: What is behind these disparities?

Daniel J. Losen, the report’s author, suggests that bias may play a role. “Why else would we see, for the same first-time offense, blacks receiving harsh punishments far more often than whites?” Losen asked in an Education Week article.

He recommends raising awareness about possible teacher bias, as well offering more training in multicultural competency and classroom management strategies.

It would be interesting to examine whether schools in your districts are reviewing their discipline procedures or offering such teacher training in the wake of these studies. Another good story angle might be to track down minority students who have left school – either through expulsion, dropping out, or transfers to alternative schools — and to trace the paths that led them there. Were they suspended for minor infractions? Did they feel singled out by teachers? What could have been done to keep them in school?

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