New report cites disproportionate punishment for black students

North Carolina research dovetails with recent findings in Texas, other states

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Second graders listen in class.

Dan Loh/AP

In a troubling pattern mirrored elsewhere, black students in North Carolina schools were found to be subjected to far harsher discipline than other students for the same types of minor infractions, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Education Policy Center, a non-partisan research center that sponsors peer-reviewed research.   

For the first-time offense of cell phone use  at school, 32 percent of black students in North Carolina were given out-of-school suspension, school data collected in 2010 showed, while less than 15 percent of white students received that same punishment for the same offense. For a first-time offense of public display of affection, according to the report, almost 43 percent of the accused black students in North Carolina were given out-of-school suspension,  compared to about 15 percent of white students.

“These tremendous racial disparities, when we are looking at first-time offenders for minor offenses, are shocking,” University of California at Los Angeles Civil Rights Project researcher Daniel Losen said Tuesday, when he unveiled the report at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The National Education Policy Center commissioned Losen to prepare the report, “Discipline Policies, Successful Schools and Racial Justice.” It is available on the policy center’s website. The center is housed at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“People say, `Well, aren’t the black students just misbehaving more?’  We’re seeing real clear evidence that there is bias, racial bias, disability bias, all sorts of bias that may be affecting these rates,” Losen said. Losen has prepared other research showing high rates of suspension and expulsion of African-American middle-school students in certain states, such as Florida.

Other recent research has also found mounting evidence of rising school suspensions throughout the United States, along with disproportionate rates, in some regions, of discipline imposed on students who are ethnic minorities or enrolled in special-education programs.

An in-depth study of Texas schools released in July by Council of State Governments, a national network, found that nearly 60 percent of Texas students were suspended or expelled at least once between their 7 th and 12 th grade years.

Ninety-seven percent of these disciplinary actions in Texas were discretionary, not based on mandatory laws for suspension or expulsion, researchers found. African-American students in Texas were 31 percent more likely to be targeted for discipline than other students, the report also found.

National Education Policy Center director Kevin Welner, who appeared with Losen Tuesday at the National Press Club, said, “Extremely high numbers of students overall are being pushed out of school for behavior that when I was in school would have resulted, at most, in a trip to the vice principal’s office and a severe scolding.”

“But on top of that,” Welner said. “Dan’s work documents that students of color, particularly African American males, are disproportionately subjected to this push-out discipline.”

“As a result of this harsh treatment, they suffer academically,” Welner added. “Being kicked out leads to becoming a dropout.”