Obama announces foundation-funded project to help black, Latino youth

Center investigations looked at school discipline problems

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President Obama launched a new initiative Thursday called My Brother’s Keeper, a privately funded effort to address the high rates at which black and Latino males drop out of school, come into contact with the criminal justice system and fall victim to violence.

“This is an issue of national importance,” Obama said at the White House. “It is an issue that goes to the heart of why I ran for president.”

Ten foundations have signed on to raise and provide $200 million over the next five years for programs, building on the $150 million they’ve already invested.

In recent years, The Center for Public Integrity has investigated the impact of expulsions and arrests of black and Latino students on various communities, from working class immigrant farmworker regions in California to liberal enclaves like San Francisco.

When people hear a range of grim statistics about men and boys of color, Obama said, “We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage it is.”

One such statistic cited by the White House: Black and Latino young men are six times more likely to be victims of murder than their white peers are each year. The new initiative to stop young men from dropping out, getting arrested and getting “profiled,” Obama said, isn’t “some big government program.”

The projects range from programs to reform discipline that leads to kids dropping out to helping kids get back on track after they’ve been arrested, sent to court or incarcerated.

In January, the Education Department and Justice Department published guidelines for effective school discipline and school policing.

In North Carolina, students and parents have alleged cases of excessive police force at schools. Civil rights groups have also revealed evidence of disproportionate punishment of black students for violating some of the same school policies as white students.

 In Los Angeles, in the nation’s second largest school district, where about 75 percent of students are Latino, community complaints have escalated in recent years about increasingly aggressive school policing and involvement of police in school discipline.

Until a couple of years ago, the Center reported, school police were ticketing thousands of students mostly at schools in low-income areas of Los Angeles for minor infractions that juvenile court judges complained were previously handled at school. Calls for new standards have led to new policies to stop ticketing kids 12 and younger, to keep L.A. Unified School police officers out of routine discipline cases and send kids who are ticketed to counseling rather than the courts.

Manuel  Criollo, an organizer with the Los Angeles Labor-Community Strategy Center,  has led campaigns to reform school policing, which civil rights activists said was putting too many black and Latino kids into court and conflict with police.

He called Obama’s announcement Thursday “an important breakthrough for the movement and for institutions and foundations that have been working on this issue.”

The White House noted additional disturbing data Thursday.

By the time they’re in fourth grade, 86 percent of African-American boys and 82 percent of Latino boys are below reading proficiency levels for their age, compared to 54 percent of white fourth graders.  African-Americans make up 16 percent of the overall youth population but account for 28 percent of juvenile arrests and 37 percent of prisoners and jail detainees.

As part of the initiative, Obama established the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, which will review public and private policies that have proven effective. The task force will establish a “What Works” online portal highlighting programs that have a positive impact.

Foundations participating in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative include the Ford Foundation; the Kapor Center for Social Impact; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; the Open Society Foundations; Bloomberg Philanthropies; the Knight Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation;  the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies and the California Endowment.

The Casey Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies and the California Endowment are Center donors.

In a statement, Kenneth H. Zimmerman, director of U.S. Programs for the Open Society Foundations, said: “We all have a stake in tapping the potential of young men of color, and we must work together to create more pathways for them to flourish.”