Government Watchdog Finds Racial Bias in School Discipline

Black students continue to be disciplined at school more often and more harshly than their white peers, often for similar infractions, according to a new report by Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog agency, which counters claims fueling the Trump administration’s efforts to re-examine discipline policies of the Obama administration.

The report, issued by the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday, is the first national governmental analysis of discipline policies since the Obama administration issued guidance in 2014 that urged schools to examine the disproportionate rates at which black students were being punished.

Critics of the Obama-era guidance have questioned whether students of color suffer from unfair treatment under school discipline policies. The G.A.O. found that not only have black students across the nation continued to bear the brunt of such policies, but the effects were also felt more widely than previously reported — including by black students in affluent schools.

Additionally, the agency found that school suspensions began to fall the year before the Obama administration urged schools to move away from the overuse of such measures, undermining claims that the guidance forced schools to cut suspensions. While the Obama administration’s aggressive civil rights investigations did reveal that black students were subjected to harsher treatment than their white peers for similar infractions, the G.A.O. found that it did not impose any new mandates on districts to reduce their suspension rates.

The findings are likely to bolster arguments for preserving the 2014 guidance and undercut conservative claims that the guidance has resulted in federal overreach and a decline in school safety.

The Obama administration guidance was issued based on data that showed that, in 2012, black students were being suspended at three times the rate of their white peers. According to the G.A.O. analysis, in the 2013-14 school year, black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.

The agency also found the disparities for black students started in preschool, and persisted regardless of the type of school they attended — disparities were particularly acute in charter schools — or the disciplinary action they received.

And black students were the only race in which both boys and girls were disproportionately disciplined across six disciplinary actions examined, which included corporal punishment, in- and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and school-related arrests.

Moreover, the agency found that black students were suspended more often than their white peers in schools of all poverty levels. In the most affluent schools, 7.5 percent of black boys had been given out-of-school suspensions, while 1.8 percent of white boys had.

The finding marks the first time that national discipline rates have been analyzed by poverty level, and challenges a common claim that poverty, more than race, may be driving disproportionate rates of disciplinary actions.

Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project, called the finding “groundbreaking.” He said it affirms other research that shows that even black boys raised in rich neighborhoods were likely to earn less than their white peers.

(Excerpted from New York Times 4/4/18)