Education official who focused on school discipline steps down

Russlyn Ali took hard look at school punishment policies that seemed to disproportionately affect minorities

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Russlynn Ali

ed.gov

Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali has quietly stepped down following an active four-year tenure devoted to changing attitudes about school discipline and improving access to college-prep classes for minorities.

Ali submitted a sweeping progress report late last month outlining her division’s accomplishents. Her office has focused heavily on investigating allegations of suspensions and expulsions that have disproportionately affected students of color.

The division has also focused on investigating  complaints that some schools fail to place minority students in advanced classes, and do not even offer advanced courses students need to qualify for college.

Ali and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have often argued that cutting suspensions and keeping kids in class is critical to boosting graduation rates and  preparing students to compete in a global economy.

Over the past four years, Ali’s office has received nearly 29,000 complaints of alleged rights violations, a 24 percent increase over the previous four-year period under the administration of George W. Bush.

More than half the complaints were related to treatment of disabled students; about 26 percent were related to race or national origin and another 14 percent were related to gender. 

The report also says that Ali’s office closed some  28,500 complaints through various means, including resolution agreements.

According to the new report, Ali’s office found various examples of discipline inequities.

For example, in one unnamed school, a white student was assigned detention for violating a cell phone policy while a black student with a similar disciplinary history was given a one-day suspension for the same infraction. 

In another unnamed school, a white student accused of using profanity was given detention, while a black student was suspended for one day for a similar infraction.

And in a third school, a pushing incident between two students resulted in a white student getting a three-day in-school suspension while a  Native American student was arrested and given a 10-day out-of-school suspension.

During her tenure, Ali also issued strong guidelines for investigating sexual-abuse allegations on college campuses; some higher education officials felt the guidelines went too far. Ali also produced guidelines for managing allegations of bullying and gender-related discrimination at schools.

In the wake of investigations, Ali’s office has struck agreements with districts small and large requiring  administrators to take action addressing inequities. The new report includes a map of investigations across the country.

Some agreements require districts to work on reducing the numbers of students from particular groups—such as African-American boys—that are removed from classrooms as a disciplinary measure. Others, including one in the Los Angeles Unified School District, also require administrators to beef up academic offerings in disadvantaged schools.

Ali’s office said it was monitoring school police citations in Los Angeles following after publication of a report by the Center for Public Integrity and KPCC public radio.  The stories—based on an analysis of school police   records—found that school police citations for minor infractions, especially for fights and tardiness, have been highly concentrated in middle schools in Los Angeles’ lowest-income and minority neighborhoods.

Parents in Los Angeles complained that school administrators were too quick to involve police in minor discipline matters, and police were too quick to cite children in certain schools.

During Ali’s tenure, her office has strengthened a national record of school statistics— the National Civil Rights Database Collection—which features detailed information about student achievement, access to classes and discipline. 

The improved database is an objective tool for measuring how students are treated, Ali has said. 

“Data alone do not constitute a violation of the civil rights laws,” Ali’s new report says, “but large disparities in the rate of disciplinary sanctions imposed on students of different races give rise to concerns about the school environment and, in some cases, possible discrimination.”

After analyzing the national data, Ali’s office found that African-American students were more than three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers.  The office also found that one in five African-American boys receives at least one out-of-school suspension, more than any other group of students.