Black Students Face Harsher Punishment: Report

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The report highlighting disciplinary disparity in schools comes as Betsy DeVos met with groups to discuss repealing Obama-era guidance.

Betsy Devos

As the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos met with groups to discuss possible repealing of the Obama-era guidance that asks schools to reduce the use of harsh disciplinary actions,  a non-partisan government watchdog agency  report highlighted glaring differences between disciplinary actions taken against white students and students of color — a bias, the guidance looks to eliminate.

The Government Accountability Office report was requested by Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) as civil right groups fight to keep the guidance alive.

The guidance asks schools to discipline students with counsel rather than expulsions and suspensions. It highlights disparity in disciplinary actions against different races and may cause the schools to come in conflict with federal law.

The report analyzed the Education Department data from the school year 2013-2014. The report reveals a clear disciplinary bias across student groups. The guidance looks to minimize the dissimilarity in dealing with students from different ethnicities. According to the report, independent of school poverty level or type of public school, boys, students with disabilities and black students were targeted for stricter disciplinary actions than the rest. In fact, the disparity in actions for black students starts as early as preschool.

This report marks a first to compare schools from different poverty levels and provides a better understanding of the disciplinary disparity.

In high poverty schools, black students are over-represented by 25 percentage points among students who receive strict disciplinary actions, such as suspensions. In wealthy schools, they are still overpunished by 12 percentage points. A similar problem is noticed among students with disabilities. Affluent schools suspend students with disabilities by 20 percentage points more than other students whereas, in poor schools, the percentage points drop to 11, but the disparity is still evident.

Some disability groups claim they were deliberately left out of DeVos’ discussion, despite asking to be invited to represent students. They claim their request for invitation was either snubbed or completely ignored.

Black students make up for only 16 percent of student at public schools but they make up almost 40 percent of students suspended, referred to outside law enforcement or arrested as disciplinary actions. Similarly, students with disabilities account for 12 percent of public school students yet amount to quarter of students facing harsh punishments.

“The analysis shows that students of color suffer harsher discipline for lesser offenses than their white peers and that racial bias is a driver of discipline disparities. This report underscores the need to combat these gross disparities by strengthening, not rescinding, the 2014 Discipline Guidance Package, which recommends specific strategies to reduce the disparities without jeopardizing school safety,” Scott said in a statement.

The Obama-era guidance has garnered fans and critics over the years. Advocates of the guidance say it is imperative for the federal government to voice their concerns about student safety and deal with disciplinary bias in schools. Reportedly, harsh schools discipline has a much more long-lasting effect on students. Suspended students are more likely to drop out of schools and end up in the criminal justice system. The guidance is designed to combat this practice.

However, critics disagree. They are of the view the reliance on counseling means allowing possibly dangerous students in the classroom, potentially risking the safety of other students.

“Whatever intentions were set forth in the guidance, the response to the guidance has been kind of knee-jerk in nature that has ended up hurting all of the children. It takes away the rights from the victimized students, as the offending students are left in the classroom to avoid suspensions,” said Nicole Landers, a Baltimore County mother, when asked about her general feelings on the guidance.

The GAO report also indicated the national rate for suspension had started to decline even before the implementation of the guidance.

The Education Department has yet to decide the fate of the guidance and has not given a specific timeline for when the decision will be made.

Thumbnail / Banner : Reuters

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