04/08/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

New Survey Can Help Us Demand Change

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released comprehensive data from all 97,000 public schools in our nation, including every school district and representing 49 million students. The report reflects much of what I've experienced with the families I work with at Special Needs Network (SNN): students of color receive more discipline more often and fewer of the tools they need to succeed, setting them on the school-to-prison pipeline. Even as early as preschool, this new data shows black students receive more suspensions. Further tipping the scales against them -- students of color have less access to veteran teachers and advanced courses.

2014-04-08-8511073631_dae1bd2384_m.jpgThe report shows that African-American students, particularly males, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, drop out and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

While this report -- called the Civil Rights Data Collection -- has been conducted every two years since 1968, this latest survey includes new information on preschool students and school discipline tactics. According to the report, only 60 percent of the nation's schools provide preschool services.

I was both shocked and saddened as I read the report, as I know first-hand that behind these startling statistics are real students like the children I work with at SNN. Racial disparities in discipline begin almost immediately for many of our African-American and Latino boys. Often school staff mistake what are otherwise normal behaviors as "acting out" behaviors -- and the labeling begins.

Once labeled, these kids are often the subjects of harsh disciplinary procedures, including being forced off general education campuses or into segregated classrooms. Many spend hours in time-outs or a principal's office, losing valuable classroom and learning time. Some of these kids have undiagnosed behavior and learning disorders that schools fail to recognize or refer for testing.

More surveys and increased collection of data continually tell us the same thing: while we have come a long way in our push for equality, there is more work to be done. These new findings put real numbers on the problem and point us in a targeted direction: our schools.

For those of us in Los Angeles, that means the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest in the nation. I urge the members of LAUSD's board to do more than just review these numbers and sadly shake your heads in despair and defeat. Put this new survey to work! Refuse to accept the status quo that characterizes African-Americans, Latinos and students with disabilities as second-class citizens. Reject the current system that responds to well-educated and heeled parents because they have both the time and resources to demand more. Think beyond traditional notions of educating students in urban schools and spend more on after-school programs, tutoring, family counseling, racial and cultural sensitivity training. Partner with nonprofits and faith-based organizations to help create home environments for kids that are more conducive to learning and thriving.

Advocates, please talk to your elected officials -- including your school board -- and demand that they use the power of state budgets to effectuate change in our schools based on these findings. Email this link to them and let them know you're holding them accountable and are prepared to exercise your right to vote for officials who will support change in our schools to decrease these poor outcomes for kids of color.

Post this article on your Facebook page or start a petition. Legislative change can start with just one person! I am an example 0- I am one mother with one child with autism. My efforts to get better care for him have resulted in new autism therapy legislation. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, another effort by one mom, is now the nation's largest nonprofit working to protect families from drunk driving and underage drinking. You, too, can use a personal situation to change an entire system.

Let our schools know our eyes are on them and we will not stand for disparate treatment of our children. Yes, these are tragic numbers and discouraging findings. But the power to put our students on a path to success begins with each and every one of us.