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Schools 'Less Safe for Black and Brown Children,' Civil Rights Advocates Say

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National experts and civil rights advocates say new federal data that show black students and students with disabilities remain vastly over-represented among students involved in police interactions should come as no surprise.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday released a report highlighting statistics from the 2015-16 school year's civil rights data collection on school safety and discipline. You can read Education Week's overview of the new civil rights data here.

Despite campaigns to address the discipline disparities, black students and students with disabilities face gaps similar to what they faced five years ago.

"Schools are places where there's tremendous amounts of discretion with regard to when to call law enforcement. As a result, we end up with folks who fear black kids, who fear for their physical safety, fear that they can't control their class, or quite frankly, contempt [for black children]," said Phillip Atiba Goff, the president of the Center for Policing Equity at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"Anytime you have high levels of fear and high levels of discretion, you're going to end up with high levels of disparity."

The latest findings come as the U.S. Department of Education weighs changes in how its office for civil rights guides school districts and handles complaints around equity in education, including rolling back Obama-administration guidance for schools on the disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions.

"There has been a growing drumbeat for safety in schools ... and unfortunately our understanding of safety is often connected with law enforcement and police in schools," said Allison Brown, the executive director of the Communities for Just Schools Fund, which provides grants for local efforts to improve school climate and change school discipline.

"In this country, that means schools become less safe for black and brown children, which the data certainly bear out," Brown said.

Brown, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney in the educational opportunities section of the civil rights division during the Obama administrations, has seen the effects of school- and district-level policies firsthand and federal data backs up her assertion.

Black Students Are Overrepresented in Out-of-School Suspensions

Schools suspended 2.7 million students out of school in 2015-16, roughly 100,000 fewer than were suspended in 2013-14. But black boys still made up 25 percent of all students suspended out of school at least once in 2015-16, and black girls accounted for another 14 percent, even though they each only accounted for 8 percent of all students.

"We recognize that the issue impacts black children period," said Letha Muhammad, director of the Raleigh, N.C.-based Education Justice Alliance.

The alliance is part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition of civil rights and student groups that has called for the removal of law enforcement officers from schools.

Those are about the same discipline gaps black students faced five years ago. By contrast, white boys and girls made up greater shares of overall enrollment, but smaller proportions of all students suspended at least once.

Muhammad, who is black, said her children "should have the right to go to public schools ... and not be treated differently because of who they are and where they come from."

Black Students Arrested at School at Disproportionate Rates

Nationally, black students made up 15 percent of all students in 2015-16, but 31 percent of those arrested or referred to police—a disparity that has grown by 5 percentage points since 2013-14.

In the same vein, students with disabilities represented 12 percent of the overall student enrollment and 28 percent of police-involved students in 2015-16.

"The consequence is that if you have a physical or mental disability, you are much more likely to be referred for discipline ... and to have your life and career trajectory further curtailed by what should be" a system that focuses on their education, Goff said.

Education Week took a deep dive into school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement last year. You can explore those data nationally, at the state level, and school by school

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