Black people in Ferguson, Mo.—where a police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager Aug. 9—are more likely to be arrested by local police officers than their white peers. Those statistics have sparked a mistrust of the mostly white police force that added fuel to passionate protests that have followed the death of Michael Brown, 18.
Those racial disparities are also present in schools in Ferguson, where black students are more likely to face some forms of discipline than their white peers, federal statistics show.
The Ferguson-Florissant school district remained closed Thursday, a day after U.S. Attorney General visited the St. Louis suburb to check in on a federal investigation of Brown's death. As Holder arrived, a grand jury began hearing evidence to determine if Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson should face charges for shooting Brown or if the shooting was a justifiable use of force.
Holder touched on a mistrust of authorities in a guest editorial he wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in advance of his visit, in which he called trust between the public and law enforcement fragile. "Enforcement priorities and arrest patterns must not lead to disparate treatment under the law, even if such treatment is unintended. And police forces should reflect the diversity of the communities they serve," Holder wrote.
Civil rights activists have said a similar mistrust exists in many schools around the country, fed by statistics that show black students are more likely to be suspended, expelled, or referred to the justice system than their peers. In the 13,234-student Ferguson-Florrisant school district, black students make up 77.1 percent of total enrollment, but 87.1 percent of students without disabilities who receive an out-of-school suspension are black, according to 2011-12 data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection.
The charts below also show that higher proportions of the district's black students are suspended than their peers. The difference is even more dramatic when you look at the proportion of black students who were suspended more than once. (There are other districts that serve students in the Ferguson area, but their enrollments are so small and so predominantly black that the disciplinary data draws from a very small number of white students, making it difficult to reliably analyze.)
Such discipline patterns aren't unusual. As Education Week reported in March, the data show that nationwide: "While black students represented 16 percent of overall enrollment, they represented 33 percent of students suspended out of school, and 34 percent of students who were expelled."
President Obama noted school discipline disparities as part of national discriminatory "patterns that start early" in his remarks about Ferguson last week.
"But as I think I've said in some past occasions, part of the ongoing challenge of perfecting our union has involved dealing with communities that feel left behind, who, as a consequence of tragic histories, often find themselves isolated, often find themselves without hope, without economic prospects," Obama said.
"You have young men of color in many communities who are more likely to end up in jail or in the criminal justice system than they are in a good job or in college. And part of my job that I can do I think without any potential conflicts is to get at those root causes ... And one of the things that we've looked at during the course of where we can—during the course of investigating where we can make a difference is that there are patterns that start early. Young African American and Hispanic boys tend to get suspended from school at much higher rates than other kids, even when they're in elementary school."
Obama Administration Efforts
Obama's administration, led by Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have worked to tackle such disparities by releasing first-of-its-kind civil rights guidance in January that clearly outlines expectations for schools in fairly crafting and implementing discipline policies.
That guidance urges districts to rethink "zero tolerance" policies that lead to classroom removal for non-violent offenses. And it spells out districts' obligations under civil rights laws to review and track the impact of disciplinary policies to ensure that they aren't unfairly affecting certain student populations. Higher rates of discipline for students in various racial and ethnic groups cannot be entirely explained away by assuming they had higher rates of misbehavior, Holder and Duncan said when they released the discipline guidance in Baltimore.
But some have questioned the guidance's approach to "disparate impact," arguing that it will serve to force racial discipline quotas on schools or force a chilling effect on classroom teachers, who will fear disciplining some students because it may skew statistics.