NEWS DAY | Discrimination drives discipline in schools — and it's time to stop

In early January, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder jointly announced new federal guidelines on school discipline. Why? "Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago," said Duncan.

Want numbers? The new guidelines have plenty:

"The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), conducted by OCR, has demonstrated that students of certain racial or ethnic groups tend to be disciplined more than their peers. For example, African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended. Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled. Furthermore, over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American."

And it's not just a national problem. Locally, Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds at the University of St. Thomas law school and Professor Nancy Heitzeg at St. Catherine's University have done extensive work on the problem of racial disparities in school discipline and the criminal justice system. Pounds describes the School-to-Prison Pipeline as what happens when children are suspended, expelled, given a citation, or in some cases even arrested for incidents that happen during the school day. Heitzeg notes that “What we see nationally and in Minnesota is that African American males are six times more likely to be suspended from school, but there’s no indication that they have more disruptive behavior than white students.” Here are two charts showing race and discipline correlations in Minneapolis Public Schools:

Both charts from May 2013 Solutions Not Suspensions summit at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota. Read article here. Racial disparities in suspensions also persist in St. Paul and in suburban schools.  

The Star Tribune reports that St. Paul Public Schools claim to be "ahead of the nation," but the stats still don't look great:

"Suspensions dropped by 28 percent overall in 2012-13, but black students still were nearly 10 times as likely to be suspended as Asian students, the ethnic group with the lowest percentage of students disciplined, the district’s data shows. Black students were 10.3 times more likely to be suspended during the previous year."

Two disciplinary practices contribute heavily to racial discrimination: so-called Zero Tolerance policies and over-use of suspension and expulsion. The combination of Zero Tolerance and racially discriminatory application of discipline leads to disproportionate responses to student misbehavior. Duncan noted, "Nationwide, as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior--like being disruptive, acting disrespectfully, tardiness, profanity, and dress code violations." Locally, several organizations, including African American Males in Education Advisory (AAMEA) Solutions Not Suspensions and Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP), are working on transforming school disciplinary practices. Among the leaders in the movement is Brandon Royce-Diop, who said at a May 2013 conference, "We can’t keep shying away from race-specific conversations and race-specific programming. When you have a problem, you address the problem directly and head on, and not through diagnostic applications.” Among the strategies being tried in Twin Cities schools (and elsewhere) are restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support.

If you're interested in learning more, the Minnesota Minority Education Project is sponsoring a Solutions in Action Youth Summit on February 12. For mor einformation on the summit, contact Cymone Fuller at Cymone [at] mmep [dot] org or by phone at 651-645-7400.

For more on the new guidelines:

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    Mary Turck's picture
    Mary Turck

    Mary Turck (maryturck [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer, editor, teacher, and lifelong activist, and former editor of the TC Daily Planet.