WASHINGTON (AP) _ African-American or Hispanic students may be more likely to be suspended, expelled or even arrested than their white peers. What’s not clear is why.

Is it discrimination, as some civil rights groups contend, or are minority students committing more infractions? Or are minority students receiving tougher punishments than whites for similar incidents?

What is known, from an Education Department civil rights report released Tuesday is that Hispanic and African-American students comprise nearly three quarters of students involved in school-related arrests or cases handed over to police. The report also found that black students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled. And, that a disproportionate number of black students with disabilities are strapped down or subjected to other restraints.

“The sad fact is that minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities, even within the same school,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Neither Duncan nor the report provided the details behind the numbers.

Civil rights activists said they weren’t surprised by the results. They blamed get tough, “zero tolerance” policies that they say contribute to a “schools-to-prisons” pipeline. The problem, they say, is that zero tolerance applies more to minorities than white children. They say it’s time for a dialogue on appropriate and fair discipline.

Duncan said some school officials might not have been aware of inconsistencies in how they handle discipline, and he, too, hoped the report would be an eye-opener. “We’re not alleging overt discrimination in some or all of these cases,” he said.

Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a think tank that specializes in social issues affecting minority communities, said research shows that black and Hispanic children are punished more harshly for the same offenses than white kids. Some think it’s necessary to crack down on minority children for small infractions. “There’s bias in classrooms. There’s also this perception of children of color as being criminals,” Dianis said

Raul Gonzalez, legislative director at the National Council of La Raza who taught school in New York, said zero tolerance policies in both schools and courtrooms have created a system that takes children out of school and ultimately leads them into prison where they become hardened criminals. He said more moderate responses are needed in schools, and he hopes that the report will lead not just to a change in policies in schools, but to state laws.

“We’ve lost control of all judgment here, and it’s almost always a black kid or a Hispanic kid” affected, Gonzalez said.

Dianne M. Piché, senior counsel and director of education program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said school discipline codes that include subjective offenses like “insubordination” have contributed to the problem. She said there’s no evidence that get-tough policies work, and “they often make things worse by reinforcing a child’s disengagement from school and low self-esteem.”

A first step, said Kwame Morton, a black principal at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Cherry Hill, N.J., is a greater understanding of the cultural background of students and how they communicate.

“Unless people in the school have the mindset where they are going to love the students and be willing to work with the kids and nurture them and guide them and rehabilitate them and when they mess up continue to teach them …I think it’s going to be a continual cycle of just coming in, kids will do things, there will be harsh consequences and penalties, they’ll be gone for a while, come back and do the same thing,” Morton said. “It will never stop unless somebody breaks that cycle.”

The Education Department findings come from a national collection of civil rights data from 2009-10 of more than 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the nation.

According to the report, 42 percent of the referrals to law enforcement involve black students and 29 percent involved Hispanics, while 35 percent of students involved in school-related arrests were black and 37 percent were Hispanic. Black students made up 18 percent of the students in the sample, but they were 35 percent of students suspended once and 39 percent of students expelled, the report said.

Students with disabilities represent 12 percent of students in the sample, but nearly 70 percent of students physically restrained by adults. Black students represent 21 percent of students with disabilities, but 44 percent of students with disabilities are subjected to mechanical restraints.


Associated Press