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Parallels Between 'Loud Music' Case and Discriminatory Discipline, Panelist Says

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Speakers on a panel about school discipline Wednesday drew parallels between the circumstances that led Florida defendant Michael Dunn to claim self defense in the shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis and those that lead some schools to discipline black students at higher rates than their white peers.

"We need to put people on notice, to put the Michael Dunns who may be in our schools on notice that we cannot have this," Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said at a discussion on racial disparities in school discipline rates, organized by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

The discussion followed the recent release of joint school discipline guidance by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, which called for a reduction in suspension-focused policies and an end to discriminatory discipline practices. Supporters say such intentional efforts will be necessary to undo a system that has led to disproportionately harsh punishment for certain student groups. Critics say the federal guidance robs school boards of local control and that suspensions are sometimes a necessary tool to maintain order in a classroom.

 A jury recently convicted Dunn of three counts of attempted murder for firing his gun into the vehicle that Jordan Davis and his friends were riding in, but it deadlocked on a first-degree murder charge for Davis' death. Dunn acknowledged that he shot Davis following a confrontation over loud music in the parking lot of a gas station, but he said he did it out of self defense. Dunn claimed he saw a gun in the SUV in which Davis was a passenger; police said they never located one at the scene.

If Dunn, who is white, thought he needed to defend himself, it was because he perceived a greater threat from the actions of black boys—like Davis—than he would from their white peers, Browne Dianis said. In a similar manner, some educators are more intimidated when a black student acts up than they would be if they saw the same behavior from a white student, said panel members, which included student and parent activists and researchers on school discipline policies.

"The threat was in the eye of the beholder," Browne Dianis said of Dunn.

In a similar manner, Browne Dianis said she once sat behind a two-way mirror while a white, female teacher in a focus group said her black students were "just so big" and "just so scary." Such perceptions could lead to unfair discipline, panelists said.

The guidance acknowledges such a possibility. Schools can be in violation of federal civil rights laws if they draft policies that unfairly target specific student groups in word or in application, the guidance says. For example, a dress code rule that targets a kind of clothing that school officials associate with a particular racial group without a legitimate educational justification for doing so.

Disciplinary policies, even those drafted without discriminatory intent, may also violate the federal laws if students from certain racial groups are disproportionately affected by them, an effect commonly known as "disparate impact," the guidance says. It provides as an example teachers who frequently write up black and white students with different sanctions for the same behavior, such as talking in the hallway.

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