Report: Widespread Racial Disparities In Public School Punishments

A U.S. Education Department report finds what it calls a pattern of punitive policies and educational neglect that disproportionately hurt black, Latino and Native American students in public schools.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Black students in America's public schools are expelled at three times the rate of white students. That's according to a sweeping new report out today from the U.S. Department of Education. The survey of all of the nation's 97,000 public schools found widespread racial disparities in how kids are punished, beginning as early as preschool.

Here's Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaking this morning at an elementary school in Washington, D.C.

SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN: The fact that the school-to-prison pipeline appears to start as early 4-year-olds, before kindergarten, should absolutely horrify us.

SIEGEL: NPR's Claudio Sanchez has more on today's report.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The Education Department's Office of Civil Rights looked at 15 years' worth of data and found what it called a pattern of inequality in how students are disciplined, whether they have good teachers or not and whether they have access to a full range of academic offerings. But the most glaring headline was this. Almost half of all preschool children who are suspended more than once are black, even though black students make up less than a fifth of the preschool population.

For comparison, 43 percent of preschoolers are white, but only a quarter get suspended more than once. African-American students are also more likely to be referred to law enforcement and to be arrested for something they did in school. Furthermore, black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other race. And students with disabilities, who represent only 12 percent of the student population, account for nearly 60 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who was also at this morning's news conference, says that's wrong.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: A routine school infraction should land a student in the principal's office, I think, not in a police precinct.

SANCHEZ: In January, Holder and Education Secretary Duncan issued the first-ever guidelines for states and local school boards to re-evaluate their disciplinary policies. But Reggie Felton of the National Schools Boards Association says the solutions to these problems don't rest with schools alone.

REGGIE FELTON: We can't just simply collect data and then blame a school or a teacher for what's going on.

SANCHEZ: Felton says kids who misbehave in school arrive with lots of problems that schools have nothing to do with. Secretary Duncan says schools are responsible. So he's calling for more counseling for kids, conflict resolution programs and more training for teachers. To help pay for it, the Education Department is offering $300 million in competitive grants.

CHARLENE HAMILTON: I agree 110 percent with what Arne Duncan is saying.

SANCHEZ: Charlene Hamilton works with the Waco Public Schools in Texas, where she's created the kinds of programs Secretary Duncan is talking about. She says zero-tolerance policies don't work.

HAMILTON: We have adopted what we call a restorative justice approach.

SANCHEZ: Which basically requires that kids apologize for misbehaving. They're not suspended and are less likely to fall behind in their schoolwork. The more difficult issue for schools, says Hamilton, is dealing with the education gap that the data point to. Minority students overall are less likely than white students to have experienced or qualified teachers and less likely to attend schools that offer a full range of math and science courses. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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