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The U.S. Department of Education is investigating discipline rates in the Seattle public schools. Students of color have long been punished in far higher numbers than white students. But now, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is looking into whether black students are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than white students for the same behavior.
From member station KUOW in Seattle, Ann Dornfeld reports.
ANN DORNFELD, BYLINE: Khadijah Toms' 15-year-old son is in ninth grade in Seattle public schools. He's African-American, and he's been suspended a lot.
KHADIJAH TOMS: I can't even count how many times. I lost count.
DORNFELD: Toms says her son has been suspended for offenses as minor as ripping up a piece of paper. She says the problem is worse now that he goes to a school where African-American students are in the minority.
TOMS: Having lived in a predominantly African-American community and having my son go to schools in that community, there was a clear difference in the way that the teachers responded to him and dealt with disciplinary matters in the school setting.
DORNFELD: African-American students in Seattle schools are suspended at a staggering rate. More than one in four black middle schoolers are suspended at least once in any given school year. That's been the case for years.
CORNISH: In other grade levels, the problem seems to be getting worse. Over the last decade, the percentage of white elementary school students suspended has stayed flat, while the suspension rate for black elementary school students has tripled. In an email, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman said the Office for Civil Rights took Seattle's discipline rates into account in launching the investigation, as well as other factors including citizen complaints.
DORNFELD: Seattle schools superintendent Jose Banda says he hopes the federal investigation reveals what's really behind the disparity.
JOSE BANDA: The data is pretty clear that there is a disproportionality there that students of color are being suspended at a higher rate than their peers. And so it's clear that there is that concern for us. We know that we have to address that.
DORNFELD: Banda says the district is complying with the feds' request for detailed, school-by-school data on who is getting in trouble for what and how they're being punished. The goal is to figure out whether African-American students really are misbehaving that much more than white students.
Jonathan Knapp taught in Seattle for years. He's now president of the Seattle Education Association teachers' union. Knapp says while the problem of disproportionate discipline is nothing new, shrinking school budgets have exacerbated the situation.
JONATHAN KNAPP: It's not an easy thing. I think if it were an easy thing, we wouldn't be in a place like this.
DORNFELD: He points out there are now hardly any school counselors to help kids work out their problems constructively. And with staffing cuts, Knapp says there are fewer opportunities for moderate discipline tactics that keep kids in school.
KNAPP: You know, in recent years with the cuts in public education, the resources that are available for in-house suspension programs or afterschool detention, for example, are just practically nonexistent. I mean, it's very, very hard to organize something like that in the current budgetary climate.
DORNFELD: Discriminatory discipline has been a focus of the Obama administration. Similar federal compliance reviews last fall in Oakland, California and Wilmington, Delaware, revealed that black students were subject to stricter discipline than white students. If the Seattle investigation reveals the same patterns, the feds will work with the district to develop a similar action plan to reduce suspension and expulsion rates, and to help students work through behavioral issues in school instead of kicking them out.
For NPR News, I'm Ann Dornfeld in Seattle.
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