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Parsing the Racial Discipline Data

The report issued by the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights leaves the distinct impression that public schools are unfairly disciplining black students ("Minority students as targets?" Los Angeles Times, Mar. 10). The operative word is "unfairly" because if this is true then the practice needs to immediately change. But I think there is more to this story than meets the eye.

First, the Education Department acknowledged through a spokesperson that it is not just white teachers in predominantly black or in predominantly white schools who are disproportionately disciplining black students. In some cases, it is black principals at overwhelmingly black schools who are involved. This fact does not minimize the lopsided findings that black students, who constitute 18 percent of the student population, account for 39 percent of all expulsions and 46 percent of repeated suspensions. But it does call into question the reflexive reaction that prejudice is the reason.

Second, the Education Department does not include data about the disparity in discipline rates between white and Asian students. This omission is relevant because white students are disciplined at a higher rate than Asian students ("What About the Kids Who Behave?" The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 10). Since the report emanated from the Office of Civil Rights, why are data about this difference not cited? Does the office believe that current practices are also prejudiced against white students? If so, doesn't the office have a duty to look into this as well?

Third, the Education Department will no doubt claim that it is not its job to go beyond reporting the numbers. However, I wonder if anyone there understands how the right of black students to get a sound education is violated by allowing disruptive students of any color to remain in the classroom? Blacks are not a monolith any more than any other racial group. Citing the removal rate of miscreants of any color that deviates from an acceptable figure is a distraction. Instead, the focus should be on the number of black students who are held hostage by misbehaving students from any racial or ethnic group.

Finally, too many students of any color are being suspended under the zero tolerance policies in place in most schools. Boards of education paint themselves into a corner when they adopt this disastrous practice. There are other more productive ways of dealing with the issue. These can range from after-school detention to the use of such programs as Restorative Practices. Don't forget that when students are suspended in most states, teachers are still legally obligated to provide them with the work they missed. As a result, students are given a holiday while teachers are given more work.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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