In Mississippi, Wanda Parker's son was suspended from school after being caught with an iPod Touch, which, she says, administrators mistook for a cellphone. She unsuccessfully pleaded for weeks to get her son admitted back into school. But because of the school district's zero-tolerance cellphone policy, Parker's son, who is African American, missed seven weeks of normal instruction and spent 45 days at an alternative school.
School suspensions for nonwhite students in kindergarten through 12th grade have increased by more than 100 percent since 1970, according to a new report. Suspension rates for blacks outgrew those for whites during the same time period, increasing by more than 10 percentage points by 2006, a year in which about a quarter of black students were suspended at least once.
Parker was among a group of parents, administrators, policymakers, judges and academics who convened last week at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss the report's findings, its implications and the ongoing problem of school-discipline disparity.
"These zero-tolerance policies dehumanize schools and make them feel more like a prison than a second home," Parker says. "My son was shamed and deprived of his education."
The report, entitled "Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice," uses data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office, data collected under No Child Left Behind and data from a sampling of state education agencies to illustrate the widening disciplinary gap between whites and minorities.
Daniel J. Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, who wrote the report in conjunction with the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, sought to challenge a common misconception: "that some children — especially black children — simply misbehave more than others." In fact, according to the report, more than 30 percent of black students caught using, or in possession of, cellphones for the first time were suspended, while only 17 percent of white students who committed the same infraction were suspended.
Suspensions for public displays of affection represent a larger gap. Black students caught publicly canoodling for the first time were suspended at a rate three times higher than that of white students who were first-time PDA offenders.
What's more, white students were disciplined most often for easily documented offenses, such as vandalism and use of explicit language, while black students were disproportionately disciplined for offenses that may have required more judgment on the part of the teacher, such as being disrespectful and being loud in class — suggesting that blacks may be singled out when it comes to more subjective infractions.
Jonathan Brice, Baltimore City Public Schools' executive director of student support, argues that some in-school rule breaking should not result in suspensions. "You need zero tolerance for acts of violence or weapons on campus," he says. "But that's a small microcosm of what goes on in our schools on a daily basis."
Since minimizing out-of-school suspensions for minor offenses in 2004, Brice says, the school district has increased its graduation rate by 20 percent and decreased the dropout rate by almost half.
Although efforts to close the suspension gap are gaining momentum — in 2010 U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder publicly discussed the issue — various legislative loopholes and red tape have made both documenting and addressing the widening gap between black and white student suspensions particularly difficult.
The report suggests that government intervention, more transparency and better record keeping by schools will improve discrepancies in discipline rates. Currently, many state agencies and school districts do not release racial breakdowns of their disciplinary records. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act requires all states to make a pledge to collect and examine disciplinary data by race and ethnicity, but the information is not required to be — and often is not — released to the public.
"We have to end what I call the 'Pledge of Illusions,' " Losen says. "We have to ask schools and districts their [suspension] rates."
Ultimately, schools also need to examine how effective suspensions really are, he adds, suggesting that when it comes to certain infractions, putting kids out of school seems counterintuitive. "Truancy is one of the leading reasons for suspending kids. What is the deterrent value in suspending truant kids?"
The complete report is available here.
Joshua R. Weaver is The Root's editorial intern. Follow him on Twitter.