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Counting On Us: Release of New Civil Rights Data Is the First Step in Helping Our Kids

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Every day, students in public schools across the country are facing harsh disciplinary measures that may have dire consequences for the rest of their lives.

That was confirmed this week when the Department of Education released Part Two of its 2009-2010 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which showed minority students face much harsher punishments and penalties in our nation’s public schools than others.

African American students are 3 1/2 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended. Though African American students made up only 18 percent of enrolled students, they accounted for 39 percent of those expelled, and were subject to zero tolerance policies at disproportionate rates. A shocking 70 percent of students arrested or referred to law enforcement were Latino or African American.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted: “The sad fact is that minority students across American face march harsher discipline than non-minorities -- even within the same school.” Past research indicates that African American students are punished more harshly for the same infractions.

The data also illustrates how students with disabilities are treated. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. They make up only 12 percent of the overall student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. And while we continue to advocate for more detailed data relating to corporal punishment in future CRDCs, this CRDC will also provide an updated snapshot of the draconian use of corporal punishment in states where it is still legal.

These figures paint a troubling picture of educational inequity that is failing our kids and fueling the school-to-prison-pipeline.

The CRDC, which began in 1968, was discontinued under the Bush administration in 2006. The ACLU and other civil rights groups successfully appealed to the Obama administration to reinstate the data collection and to expand it to include new categories of data on harsh discipline measures, such as referrals to law enforcement, school-based arrests and expulsion under zero-tolerance policies.

This week’s CRDC release is a great step forward in learning what we need to know to work with local, state and federal authorities to reduce these troubling disparities. But there is much more to be done, including:

  • encouraging the Department of Education to collect data annually from all schools, including all schools that receive federal funding;
  • urging Congress to codify this type of data collection and ensure that the information we learn from the CRDC is used to increase federal funding to improve school climate and discipline practices;
  • encouraging the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, an interagency effort between the Department of Justice and the Department of Education, to issue guidance to states and school districts to help them implement less discriminatory alternatives to exclusionary practices;
  • supporting H.R. 3165, the Positive Behavior for Safe and Effective Schools Act, which gives schools the ability to fund evidence-based programs, such as peer mediation, counseling and other preventive disciplinary approaches as alternatives to overly punitive school discipline;
  • supporting H.R. 3027, the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act, which would ban the practice of school personnel striking or beating students in public schools and private schools that serve students who receive federal services; and
  • urging the Department of Education to collect data on the incidents of corporal punishment in our schools, not just the number of students subjected to the practice.

Maintaining a healthy school environment is a critical responsibility of schools. Yet, studies show relying on exclusionary discipline does not make schools safer or more productive. Rather, reliance on practices like suspensions, expulsions and arrests decrease academic achievement and increase the likelihood that students will be pushed out of school, oftentimes into the criminal justice system.

At bottom, the improper use of school discipline undermines the mission of our nation’s schools. Millions of students are counting on us to use this new data to make lasting change.

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