Are Public Schools Safe for Black Children?

On Tuesday the Department of Education released the details of a stunning report showing that public schools routinely punish minority students unfairly. What can be done?

U.S. Department of Education
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.

“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.

* 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.”