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Why are black and Latino kids punished more in school?

Photo by cayoup/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A report released today by the federal Department of Education finds that when kids in U.S. public schools are punished, the harshest punishment is often reserved for certain minorities.

The findings in a nutshell: Black students, especially boys - and to a lesser degree, Latino students - are subject to more suspension, more expulsion, and when they are disabled, more physical restraint than their white peers.

The 2009-2010 data was gathered from 72,000 kindergarten through high schools around the country whose student bodies represent about 85 percent of U.S. students. It's not just in discipline that there was a gap. The schools data also measures things like teacher experience, teacher pay and educational offerings, and there are wide gaps there, too.

A few highlights:

The New York Times had a few more details from the study this morning:
One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.

And in districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Hispanic and black students represent 45 percent of the student body, but 56 percent of those expelled under such policies.

In addition, more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were black or Latino. The discrepancy isn't limited to healthy, able-bodied kids capable of getting into trouble, though: Disabled black and Latino kids were subject to more punishment also. From the Times story:
Black and Hispanic students — particularly those with disabilities — are also disproportionately subject to seclusion or restraints. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints.

Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion.

Why is discipline stronger for black and Latino kids? One factor that critics of school disciplinary policies have long pointed to are the zero-tolerance policies that became popular after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, during which two armed boys opened fire on campus. But these policies punish students for a number of offenses that don't relate to weapons, with even dress code or cell phone offenses enough to get a student suspended.

A study last year by the National Education Policy Center found, similarly to today's report, that in the decade since zero-tolerance policies came into vogue, suspensions have crept up. And that black students, followed by Latinos, are disproportionately affected by them.

From a Los Angeles Times story last year:

Suspensions are falling mostly on black students; nearly a third of black males in middle school have been suspended at least once, researchers from the University of Colorado-based group found.

In Los Angeles Unified, one of the school systems included in the report, district figures show a similar situation: Last school year, nearly 34% of students suspended from middle schools were African American, while about 11% were Latino, 5% were white and 3% were Asian. The district, the nation's second largest, had nearly 74% Latino students, 10% African American, nearly 9% white and nearly 4% Asian.

Yet L.A. Unified, with an overall suspension rate of 6.9%, fell below the state average of nearly 12%, according to the California Department of Education.

Much has been written about punitive disciplinary policies contributing to a "school to prison pipeline," including in this 2008 report from the National Association of School Psychologists:
Students who experience excessive suspension and expulsion are more likely to become part of the school to prison pipeline (Fenning & Rose, 2007). Many authors are now examining the issue of the school to prison pipeline and trying to understand how students who drop out (or are pushed out) of high school are more likely to enter the prison system (Fine, 1991).

Push out is a term that is used to describe students who dropped out of school because of actions or barriers put up by their school. Their school might have committed actions that made the student feel like they did not belong in school, were not intelligent enough to finish, or that school was a negative and stressful place.

More from the Department of Education report is available here.

More from the Department of Education report is available here.