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The Civil Rights of Children

NY Times, Jan. 11, 2014

By the Editorial Board

Most school officials try to apply disciplinary policies fairly and in compliance with federal laws that forbid racial discrimination. Even so, a large and troubling body of data — some if it gathered by the federal government — shows that black and Hispanic students are disproportionately and unjustifiably subjected to suspension, expulsion or even arrest for nonviolent offenses that should be dealt with in the principal’s office.

As a result, minority children who are already at greater risk of dropping out are being ejected from school and denied the right to an effective public education.

Over the last several years, civil rights officials in the Obama administration have begun to focus on this problem, increasing civil rights investigations and forcing school districts to revise disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect minorities. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, for example, has reached such agreements with school districts in Los Angeles; in Oakland, Calif.; and in Delaware.

Last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division took another welcome step. The agencies jointlyissued an extensive set of guidance documents, informing school districts of the law and showing them how to identify, avoid and remedy discriminatory disciplinary policies.

The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities. For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make of 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of those expelled. Statistical information does not in itself prove discrimination. But research has shown that black students do not engage in more serious or more frequent misbehavior than other students.

The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.

Investigations in this area have found two kinds of discrimination: cases in which African-American students are treated more harshly and disciplined more frequently than white students who engage in similar misbehavior; and cases where policies — like mandatory suspension, expulsion or ticketing — are administered in a race-neutral manner but have a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.

To prevent bad practices, the new federal guidance urges schools to train teachers more intensively in classroom management; to ensure that teachers and administrators know they, rather than security or law-enforcement officers, are responsible for routine discipline; to collect data on disciplinary actions and monitor the actions of security officers; and to emphasize policies that reinforce positive behavior over tactics that drive students out of school.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was on the mark last week when he said, “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.” By making suspension and arrest a last resort, school districts can avoid federal civil rights sanctions and move away from destructive policies that seriously harm the most vulnerable students.

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