U.S. Department of Education

On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Education released the Civil Rights Data Collection sample, which found that public school educators unfairly punish minority students. The Associated Press had previously reported on a preliminary release of the report.

The survey of 7,000 school districts and 72,000 schools was conducted during the 2009-2010 school year. It also found that African-American children were less likely to be exposed to high-level curriculums and experienced teachers.

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"The data portend a very disturbing picture," Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali explained during a conference call on Tuesday. "They tell us that across the country, African Americans, Latinos, students with disabilities and English-language learners continue to receive less than their fair share of our most important resources."

For example, while African-American children represent 18 percent of the sample in the study, they represent 35 percent of the number of students suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all students expelled, the report shows.

Findings also show that more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Latino or African American.

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* Across all districts, African-American students were more than 3 1/2 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled.

* In districts that reported expulsions under zero-tolerance policies, Latino and African-American students represented 45 percent of the student body but 56 percent of the students expelled under such policies.

* Suspension rates were equally shocking. African-American boys and girls had higher suspension rates than any of their peers. One in 5 African-American boys and more than 1 in 10 African-American girls received an out-of-school suspension. And students with disabilities were twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. 

While some civil rights leaders welcomed the results' spotlight on the problems, they urged the federal government to take immediate steps to mitigate the problem. In a prepared statement, Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 groups, said, "We applaud the Department of Education for collecting and releasing this data — which points to mass and systemic discrimination in our public education system. With this knowledge comes the responsibility for the department to investigate school districts that may be in violation of federal civil rights law and take appropriate enforcement action."

Henderson went on to say that the report paints, in stark terms, how our educational system is failing boys and girls. By showing vast disparities in virtually all dimensions of students' experiences in schools — including discipline, achievement, resources and support — it reveals a harsh reality of student life for minorities and students with disabilities.

He said that when black and white students commit the same offense, black students are far more likely to be suspended, expelled, subject to physical punishment and referred to the police. These disparities start a vicious circle for these students, who fall further behind in class time, suffer from lower self-esteem and then either drop out or land in the criminal-justice system. These are among the most treacherous barriers to economic and educational advancement for minorities in this country; they must stop, Henderson said.

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Ali also said that the survey uncovered long-hidden data about just who is subjected to seclusion and to physical and mechanical restraint in public schools.

* Students with disabilities represented 12 percent of students in the sample but nearly 70 percent of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.

* Latino students represented 24 percent of students without disabilities but 42 percent of students without disabilities who were subject to seclusion.

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* African-American students represented 21 percent of students with disabilities but 44 percent of students with disabilities who were subject to mechanical restraint. 

Indeed, these findings are disturbing. We hope that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan develops a plan soon to address these astounding disparities. He has long said that education is one of today's pre-eminent civil rights issues. Now he has the data to back up that statement.