ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For years, there has been mounting evidence that schools across the country suspend and expel black students at a much higher rate than white students. Today, a study by the University of Pennsylvania singles out 13 Southern states where the problem is worst. Here's NPR's Claudio Sanchez.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Schools in these states were responsible for more than half of all suspensions and expulsions of black students nationwide.
SHAUN HARPER: Black kids, on the whole, are suspended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with safety.
SANCHEZ: Shaun Harper is with the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. He co-authored the report which looked at a total of 3,022 school districts. In 132 of them, the suspension and expulsion rates of blacks were off the charts.
HARPER: In those 132 districts, blacks were suspended at five times or higher their representation in the student body. There were 84 districts where blacks were 100 percent of the students suspended from public schools.
SANCHEZ: Now, Harper says most people presume that because these schools are in the South, they enroll more black kids than anywhere else, and that's why their expulsion and suspension rates are higher. Wrong, says Harper.
HARPER: Blacks are only 24 percent of the students enrolled in public schools in those states, yet they are 48 percent of students suspended and 49 percent of students expelled.
SANCHEZ: Harper's study is not the first to document these disparities. Other researchers have argued that schools today use so-called zero-tolerance policies not only to criminalize kids' misdeeds - like dress code violations, being too loud, talking back to a teacher - but to punish black, Latinos and kids with disabilities more often and more harshly.
DEBORAH FOWLER: Absolutely true.
SANCHEZ: Deborah Fowler is with Texas Appleseed, a public-interest law firm that conducted one of the most exhaustive studies of school suspensions and expulsions in Texas, one of the states identified by Harper's study. Fowler says exposing racial disparities in how schools enforce disciplinary policies is important. But don't expect changes right away.
FOWLER: So for example, in Texas, out-of-school suspensions have decreased by about 20 percent over the last few years. But what you see is that as the numbers decrease, the disparities for African-American students increase.
SANCHEZ: Virginia is also one of the 13 states singled out in today's report.
STEVEN STAPLES: We agree that the numbers are troubling. We've been tracking them even before some of the national stories hit.
SANCHEZ: But state superintendent Steven Staples says Virginia's tackling the problem through better training of teachers and administrators.
STAPLES: We've seen the short-term suspension numbers drop, the long-term suspensions drop, the referrals to law enforcement drop.
SANCHEZ: The University of Pennsylvania's Shaun Harper says he's not sure how other states are going to react. But if his report doesn't outrage people, he says he doesn't know what will. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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