Black students punished more than white students in public schools, government watchdog says

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In Philadelphia, child advocates have pushed the school district to permanently prohibit out-of-school suspensions of children through fifth grade.

Black students in the nation’s public schools are disciplined more often and more severely than white students, a government watchdog found in a report issued this week.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzed national civil rights data from the U.S. Department of Education for the 2013-14 school year, the most recent available.

In some cases, black students received harsher punishment than white students for the same offense. Consider these examples mentioned in the report:

  • In Kentucky, a black 10th-grader was assigned a one-day out-of-school suspension for skipping school. A white 12th-grader was assigned a conference with the principal for the same offense. The black student had 19 previous disciplinary referrals, while the white student had 28 previous disciplinary referrals.
  • In Mississippi, among several students who were disciplined for the first offense of using profanity, black students were the only ones suspended from school, while white students received warnings and detention for substantially similar behavior.

Nationally, more black students received out-of-school suspensions than white students — even though white students made up a much larger portion of the overall student population.

A 2016 federal study also showed that black students were at least three times more likely to be suspended from school and nearly twice as likely to be expelled than their white peers.

In Philadelphia, child advocates have pushed the school district to permanently prohibit out-of-school suspensions of children through fifth grade. (In 2016, the district halted most suspensions for kindergartners and for students who violate the dress code).

Children who are suspended are disproportionately black students, despite research that shows that black students are not more likely to misbehave. According to federal data, Philadelphia’s black children are 2.65 times more likely to be suspended, and 3.08 times more likely to be suspended multiple times, than white children.

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Researchers have found that out-of-school suspensions can lower students’ grades and make them more likely to end up behind bars.

A 2014 document issued by the Obama administration told schools to determine if penalties like suspension and expulsion were disproportionately affecting black students. If they didn’t correct disparities, the schools could face federal investigations and possible loss of federal funding.

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met behind closed doors with educators who believe that rolling back the Obama rule will further entrench discrimination. Later in the day she heard from opponents who say that softening discipline practices makes schools less safe and prevents effective learning.

This article includes reporting from the Associated Press.