Feds: Harsher punishment doled out to black students

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Nationally, African-American students make up 15 percent of the enrollment in schools, but they account for 35 percent of students who get suspended, 44 percent of those suspended twice and 36 percent of students expelled.

The U.S. Department of Education, along with the U.S. Department of Justice highlighted the issue Wednesday in a "Dear Colleague" letter to school officials, pointing out the disparity in the way discipline is doled out among racial groups and providing guidelines for correcting the situation.

The letter said the departments recognized that a number of factors affect discipline rates, but that research shows that disparity in the discipline rates cannot be attributed to "more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color" but appeared to be more directly caused by discrimination against students of color. Investigations by the departments found instances where African-American students were disciplined "more harshly and more frequently" than white students.

The letter won the approval of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it provided "groundbreaking guidance" for school districts, and a coalition of national civil rights, youth and parent community groups who have been working to raise awareness about racial disparity in school discipline.

In Pennsylvania, the numbers reflect the national trend with African-American students also accounting for 15 percent of enrollment, but 29 percent of expulsions and 48 percent of suspensions.

"The disparity in the administration of suspensions and expulsions is a long-standing issue in every urban district that I am familiar with," said Pittsburgh schools superintendent Linda Lane.

Pittsburgh Public Schools started last year, with the help of the Education Law Center, to revise its student discipline code. Part of the emphasis in the change is to reduce the number of suspensions, which the district has been able to do. However, the disparity between the races still exists, Ms. Lane said.

The state Safe Schools report for 2012-13 shows that about 82 percent of expulsions in Pittsburgh went to black students as did 76 percent of suspensions, while enrollment of black students in the district is 57 percent.

"It's still significantly disproportionate," Ms. Lane said. "We've worked with a number of programs to reduce school suspensions, but didn't get at the disparity. It's hard to do both."

Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson has seen a similar situation in his district, where changes in the discipline practices have reduced suspensions, but a disparity between the races, particularly among African-American males still exists. At a seminar this past summer at the University of Pittsburgh, Mr. Johnson said black males in his district were 20 times more likely than white males to be suspended.

According to the state Safe Schools report for 2012-12, 19 of the 20 expulsions in the district were issued to African-American males as were 90 percent of the more than 2,400 suspensions.

Mr. Johnson said he believes significant change will take as long as seven to 10 years and come as a result of curriculum and instructional design "that embraces African-American males from the beginning."

He said district officials recently made random checks of classrooms in the district and noted that in one elementary class composed of about 75 percent African-American students every instructional resource on the walls included pictures of white children from middle class backgrounds. "If black students don't see others like them in those kinds of environments it doesn't take long to build a message in their minds 'this isn't for me.' "

Mr. Johnson said he welcomed the "Dear Colleague" letter for the attention it focuses on the issue and for its recommendations, which include revision of school discipline codes, examination by school officials of the way that discipline is meted out among various racial groups for the same offenses and the use of positive reinforcements rather than punishments.

"For me, there is nothing new or revolutionary here," Mr. Johnson said. "But the value of it is that I've been trying to get people to take this seriously. Now they can see this is really an issue and it's not just in Woodland Hills."

In his district, Mr. Johnson said zero-tolerance policies will be maintained for offenses such as weapons, drugs and assaults on staff. "But apart from that we want to get away from zero tolerance and consider every case on its merit and the totality of circumstances involved," he said.

In Pittsburgh, Ms. Lane both administrators and classroom teachers desire more professional development to help them manage their classrooms and provide support to students who are struggling with issues common to urban environments.

"There are traumatizing experiences that kids in challenging neighborhoods are exposed to and from what I'm hearing some of our kids need mental health support. If they are going to act out after seeing those things, I think we are going to have to be able to support them and work through some challenges they have to deal with," Ms. Lane said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement, said the federal government offered positive solutions in the letter, but they must be followed up with the financial resources to make them possible.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.

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