Government Watchdog Finds Racial Bias in School Discipline

A new Government Accountability Office report found not only that black students across the nation bore the brunt of disproportionate discipline, but also that the effects were felt more widely than previously reported.

WASHINGTON — 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.

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hosted groups of educators and advocates for and against the disciplinary guidance, the 12th set of round tables the department has held in the past year — and the first Ms. DeVos attended in person.

Nina Leuzzi, a prekindergarten teacher at a Boston charter school, said she kept her word to her class of 20, predominantly minority 4-year-olds, in making her case to the secretary for why the guidance should stay. When the children asked her why she was traveling to Washington, she told them it was to keep them safe.

“Rescinding this would send the message that there is no longer a concern about discrimination in our schools,” Ms. Leuzzi said.

Nicole Stewart, a former vice principal in San Diego, told Ms. DeVos that pressures to reduce suspensions had made schools dangerous. She said administrators did not expel a student with a knife at her school because he had a disability. Weeks later, he slit a student’s throat, she said.

“It is no wonder that our kids don’t think that rules and consequences apply to them,” Ms. Stewart said. “We are not modeling what consequences look like in the real world.”

Ms. DeVos is facing new pressures after Republicans linked the guidance to the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and President Trump assigned her to lead a school safety commission that will consider whether to repeal the guidance.

Ms. DeVos has declined to say publicly whether she believes that racial bias plays a role in the disproportionate rates at which black students are punished in school. But according to attendees at Wednesday’s meeting, the secretary opened her remarks by acknowledging that the conversations were taking place on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and that racial disparities in discipline were a problem in the country.

Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators for Excellence, which represents nearly 30,000 educators across the country, said the acknowledgment gave him hope. “Still, we have a real uphill battle ahead,” said Mr. Stone, who attended the meeting with Ms. Leuzzi and five other teachers who are part of the group.

Members of Congress urged Ms. DeVos not to make a decision on the guidance until the G.A.O. report was made public. The Education Department did not issue a response to the G.A.O. findings, as is customary, and did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

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.

“This further shows that poverty is not explaining the disparities,” Mr. Losen said. “There’s a racial discrimination problem, and that can no longer be disputed.”

The G.A.O. analysis was requested by Representative Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York.

The agency was charged with identifying patterns in disciplinary actions among public schools, the challenges that school districts faced with discipline reform, and how the Departments of Education and Justice have addressed the issue through enforcement measures. The investigation took place from November 2016 through March, and included data analysis and interviews with officials in the Education and Justice Departments, as well as district leaders in five states.

The report was praised by Democratic lawmakers as evidence that the 2014 guidance had value. The guidance informed schools that wide racial disparities could signal discriminatory practices that could result in a federal investigation and loss of federal funding. It also suggested a number of strategies for managing nonviolent behavior without resorting to kicking students out of school.

“The G.A.O.’s first-of-its-kind analysis confirms that racial bias contributes to pervasive discipline disparities,” Mr. Scott and Mr. Nadler said in a joint statement. “The G.A.O.’s findings underscore the need to strengthen the guidance, not rescind it as some have recommended.”

But critics who want to see the Obama-era guidance rescinded said the report’s scope was too narrow to draw broad conclusions.

“None of these findings change the basic story line,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “What we’ve learned is discipline reform is being applied unevenly. If you are concerned there are some specific districts and schools that are responding particularly poorly to this, I don’t think this study gets at that question.”

Mr. Petrilli also said the report did not answer the question at the heart of the Obama-guidance criticism: whether racial bias accounted for all the disparities.

The G.A.O. examination illustrated how racial bias was unfolding in some districts.

For instance, at a school district in Kentucky where black students were 10 times as likely as white students to be disciplined, school officials acknowledged that 61 types of violations were undefined, which allowed staff to punish black students more harshly.

In interviews, district officials also reported that they maintained broad discretion in how they disciplined students, and that more serious offenses, like those concerning weapons, violence and drugs, still resulted in removing students from school.

And all of the school districts reported that while they embraced the opportunity to revise their approach to discipline, their biggest barrier was not student behavior. It was the lack of resources to tackle cases of trauma and mental health issues that increasingly plague the nation’s children.

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