Skip to main content

Department of Education Data Show Urgent Need to Address Racial Disparities in School Discipline

Resource type: News

Dignity in Schools Coalition | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

Today Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, announced the results of the latest Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) – a national survey of 72,000 schools – which shows that racial disparities in school discipline, including suspensions, expulsions and arrests, remain alarmingly high in districts and states across the country.

Key findings show that African-American students are more than three times as likely to be suspended as their white peers. Over 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino, and students with disabilities are suspended at a rate twice that of students without disabilities.

“For years, we as parents have known about the unequal discipline practices in our inner city schools.  Consistent data collection not only gives our stories legitimacy, but also gives the Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights real information to deal with the systemic issues plaguing our students of color in the public school systems across the country,” says Eddie Madison, father of three boys in South Central Los Angeles and parent leader at CADRE, a community-based, parent-led organization focused on stopping the pushout crisis in South LA schools. “We applaud this first step, yet we hope this type of data collection can be done more often and more extensively to ensure our children’s human right to a quality education  no matter where they live,” he added.

The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) commends the U.S. Department of Education on its effort to collect and analyze data on the application and effects of school discipline nationwide. We also applaud the inclusion of new categories, such as school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement, that DSC and its allies urged the Department to include.

Prior studies on the harms of exclusionary discipline, such as the 2011 report on school discipline in Texas public schools by the Council of State Governments, have shown that school suspension and expulsion significantly increase the likelihood that students will be held back a grade, not graduate and become involved in the juvenile justice system. And these new data confirm that suspension and expulsion rates are highest among students of color and students with disabilities.  If we are to ever close the “achievement gap” or end the “dropout crisis,” we must start by addressing the policies and practices that are pushing students out of school.

To foster healthy and engaging learning environments and provide educators, parents, and students the data they need to ensure school success, the DSC recommends that:

  • Data collection efforts such as the CRDC should occur annually, instead of biennially, and should include all school districts and schools nationwide, including charter and privately run schools that receive federal funding.  
  • The Obama Administration must take action to increase federal guidance and funding for positive interventions to improve school climate, discipline and educational outcomes.  The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have taken a significant first step by creating the inter-agency Supportive School Discipline Initiative. This initiative should result in strong and immediate public guidance and technical assistance for states and districts on how to implement positive approaches to discipline, as well as vigorous enforcement of civil rights in school discipline.  Furthermore, parents, students, and community organizations must help shape implementation.  
  • As Congress works to replace No Child Left Behind, it should ensure: annual disciplinary data collection; accountability, training and support for schools with high disciplinary rates and disparities; and promotion of best practices.

Maryland, Colorado, and Los Angeles are among the most recent states and cities to address the issue of high suspension rates.

On Tuesday, February 28, the Maryland Board of Education unveiled a plan to drastically reduce school suspensions in the state, where 63 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent offenses such as insubordination or classroom disturbance. The plan envisions that disciplinary offenses would be coded to distinguish violent infractions from those that are nonviolent. The plan would also require that the state’s 24 districts create plans to address racial disparities in discipline.

In Colorado, as a result of community-led efforts by Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a member of DSC, Denver Public Schools adopted positive alternatives like restorative justice in place of more punitive measures, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions. On March 1, 2012, Colorado’s Senate Education Committee approved the bipartisan “Fair Discipline in Schools Act” (SB 46).  This legislation reforms the state’s discipline policy to give school district administrators more discretion to use restorative justice, peer mediation, counseling, and other preventive disciplinary approaches in place of zero tolerance policies which lead to immediate suspension, expulsion and/or referral to law enforcement.

“Our work in the District and at the state legislature demonstrates the power of having the people most affected by the problem develop and fight for their solutions. This new data confirms what thousands of students and their families have known for years, our actions confirm who has to be at the lead to find the way to change that data,” said Lalo Montoya, youth organizer with Padres y Jovenes Unidos, who got involved in the struggle to rewrite the discipline policies as a student at North High School.

In South Los Angeles, parent-led organization and DSC member CADRE has been working to reduce suspension rates and address racial disparity in school discipline. In 2007, they won a district-wide mandate of School-wide Positive Behavior Support to be implemented in every Los Angeles school to reduce suspensions and improve school climate, paving the way for addressing other forms of pushout. In February of this year, Labor Community Strategy Center and the DSC Los Angeles chapter scored another victory to end the Los Angeles Police Department’s practice of ticketing students up to $250 for truancy. The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to drastically reduce the frequency and cost of fines for students who are late to school.

Other states and cities should follow the examples of Maryland, Colorado, and Los Angeles to reduce the practice of suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement and implement positive approaches to discipline like restorative justice practices and positive behavior supports. Clear federal guidance on these practices is essential as well.

The Dignity in Schools Campaign is a coalition of youth, parents, educators, civil rights organizations, and social justice advocates working to ensure the human right of every child to a quality education and to be treated with dignity. The DSC challenges the systemic problem of “push out” and promotes local and national alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment and removal in schools.

The Dignity in Schools Coalition is an Atlantic grantee via a re-grant through the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

CADRE is an Atlantic grantee via a re-grant through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Padres y Jovenes Unidos is an Atlantic grantee via a re-grant through Public Interest Projects Just and Fair Schools Fund.