The behavior might be exactly the same — mouthing off to a teacher, cursing another student, getting into a shoving match — but, for students of color, the outcome is far more likely than for their white peers to result in punishments that will see them suspended, expelled or even jailed. As a result, they will be at increased risk of lifelong social and economic problems.
It’s long past time to correct this disparity. Let’s hope the establishment of federal guidelines will encourage schools to take new approaches to discipline.
On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. issued guidelines, the first ever, to help schools implement policies that don’t discriminate and keep children in class. The 35-page document outlined various approaches, such as counseling students and coaching teachers, and clarified how districts can meet legal obligations.
In a letter to school officials, Duncan cited the “tremendous costs” of widespread use of suspensions and expulsions: Unsupervised students don’t benefit from “great teaching, positive peer interactions, and adult mentorship offered in class and in school.” Data collected by education officials show that minorities and youths with disabilities are the most affected. For example, African Americans without disabilities are more than three times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled from school. And while students who receive special education services represent just 12 percent of enrollment, they make up 25 percent of those receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of those referred to law enforcement.
Schools need to be safe places of learning, but extreme measures to deal with minor behavioral issues are overused and do little to improve the educational climate. Indeed, school districts such as those in Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles and Broward County, Fla., have successful programs that focus on preventing problem behavior, not just reacting to it. Systems that have lagged, including Alexandria, Va., as The Washington Post’s Michael Alison Chandler detailed this week, should follow the example set by these pioneering systems or know, as federal officials warned, that there could be legal consequences for discipline that has racially lopsided results.